Thirty Years Ago…

“This magic day when super-science
Mingles with the bright stuff of dreams.”
-Rush “Countdown” from the album “Signals”


I remember it like it was yesterday.

I was a senior in high school, and like most seniors I was already thinking ahead to the end of the school year and the celebration of freedom that comes with graduating high school. I already knew that I would be attending the University of Texas in the fall, and would be double-majoring in physics and astronomy. Yet on one particular day in the Spring of that year 30 years ago, my attention was diverted from senioritis, chasing girls and future studies, and was devoted to a seminal event.

It was Friday, April 10, 1981, and I cut class to watch the launch of space shuttle Columbia on her maiden voyage…

Finally, this was to be the long-awaited resumption of a human spaceflight endeavor worthy of a great nation. It had been nine long years since Apollo 17, and the subsequent Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz flights were afterthoughts in that moment, time-fillers for what was to come. What had been a decade of unmanned exploration with the Viking probes landing on Mars, and the visits by Pioneers 10 and 11 to Jupiter and Saturn, would return to manned exploration with the launch of the world’s first reusable space vehicle.

Only the launch was scrubbed that day.

No problem. I got to see it a few days later at home on Sunday, April 12 – and I didn’t have to cut class to watch it. I remember watching the substandard camera images and comical animations (in today’s context) of Columbia after launch, and wondered what Young and Crippen must have been thinking at that moment. Were they crazy? After all, this was the maiden voyage of a shuttle, period – no unmanned test flights, just a few approach and landing tests in the desert of California.

Yet I couldn’t help but be convinced they were excited to begin a new era in US human spaceflight history, and had tremendous confidence in the men and women of NASA who designed, fabricated, and tested the shuttle, and who planned and trained for this day. And little did I know at that moment in time, that seven years later after finishing graduate school, I would become one with those same men and women.

In looking back over the last thirty years, I think about those who devoted themselves to the successful STS-1 mission. I think about all of those who have come and gone since. And I especially think about those who are dedicated to make the remaining two shuttle missions as safe – no, safer – than the first. It is the latter that have my deepest admiration. Men and women who know that the Shuttle Program is coming to an end, and for many it means facing the realities of impending layoffs in the coming weeks.

Nothing can soften that blow, even these humble words I offer.

Yet it is to all of them, and to all that have come before, that I salute. It has been a tremendous honor to have served with you and to see ordinary people accomplish extraordinary things over the last thirty years. In the uncertain times of today as we grapple once again with the need for – and in today’s context, the lack of – a new human spaceflight endeavor worthy of a great nation, I offer my firm belief that this isn’t the end… it’s the beginning.

Ad astra!


Text © Joe Williams 2011

Photo courtesy of NASA


Thirty Years Ago…