When the Shuttle Was Young
By Gregory Curtis
From “Behind the Lines,” originally published in January 1984
The glory of the space program is that in fifty years we have gone from setting off rockets with matches to sending up laboratories where six men can live for ten days and return to Earth as gently as a jetliner pulls into DFW. The shuttle’s takeoff is an exhilarating spectacle because it is incontrovertible proof that all the problems that stood in its way were solved by human energy and intelligence.
Capitalizing on the Right Stuff
It is easy to understand why John Glenn wants to go back into space. But why would NASA, a multibillion-dollar agency with important things to do, want to send him? Like John Glenn, NASA itself longs for a return to its former glory days. Employees dream like fading starlets of future leading roles, above all, a manned mission to the Red Planet. Getting anybody there would be a monumental undertaking and would cost billions. How better to generate public support for such a quest than to remind the nation of the first time it fell head over heels for an astronaut?
One Giant Step for Logistics
By Stephen Harrigan
From “Heaven & Earth,” originally published in April 2003
Spaceflight has changed in ways that have inevitably leached some of the glamour away. The shuttle is a vehicle less for exploratory voyaging than for near-shore exploitation of space. Its primary job these days is the servicing and maintenance of the International Space Station. Compared with the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María, the shuttle is more like a crew boat ferrying personnel and supplies to an offshore drilling platform. When those supplies are unloaded in the weightlessness of space, astronauts, like grocery stockers, keep track of the inventory with bar code readers. In orbit, they receive a per diem of just $2.
The United Colors of NASA
More than 350 people have now gone into space on the 133 space shuttle missions, and they represent our species probably better than we deserve. There have been female commanders and farmworker’s sons, schoolteachers, heart surgeons, senators, astronomers, biologists, geologists, psychologists, jet pilots, and enough engineers to construct a space station the size of a shopping mall. And that’s just the Americans. [They have been joined] over the years by the citizens of fifteen other countries, from Mexico and Switzerland to Israel, Japan, and Saudi Arabia, men and women who took salsa music and sashimi into outer space and gave other cultures a taste of the dream.