The year: 1981. Pac-Man fever has incurably spread across the country. Both Mork and Mindy are still on the air. There are still pitched Battles of the Network Stars being fought on a yearly basis. The Sony Walkman has been on the market for a little under two years.
Oh, and Space Shuttle Columbia just blasted off for the very first time a couple of days ago, and is going to land very soon.
Now nearly six years since the last Space Shuttle lifted off, it’s almost unimaginable that a TV network would devote 3+ hours of wall-to-wall coverage to a perfectly ordinary Shuttle landing…except that this was the first time that a Shuttle returning from orbit ever came in for a landing. Every American space mission before this sunny April day in 1981 had ended with a splashdown in an ocean. But not this one.
[Via] Golden Pacific Media
It’s a slice of history, like a time machine: the first manned American space flight in six years was a big deal. And while it had taken longer to get the Space Shuttle airborne – on a scale of years – due to technical delays on the bleeding edge of new technologies, it had finally taken to the sky, something that looked more like a space fighter from a movie than it looked like a metal can with windows.
And perhaps most bittersweet of all, it had yet to let anyone down. The promises, made throughout the ‘70s ever since the Nixon administration had signed off on the Shuttle’s basic design, of routine, weekly flights to orbit, of a massive space station built by the 1990s that would be a stepping stone to the rest of the solar system…none of them had been broken yet. The reality of getting Columbia ready for her second flight hadn’t set in yet.
Nobody knew how difficult or costly it would be…or, just a few years later, how dangerous, as NASA tried to fly its fleet of Shuttles more and more frequently.
I remember watching the landing coverage at a friend’s house, the site of a spring break sleepover. He was ready to fire up the Atari, or go outside and kick a ball, and I wasn’t ready to budge. Like other budding space geeks who had grown up in a decade during which American astronauts had simply stopped going to space for years on end, it had all been building up to this – the lovingly illustrated National Geographic issue devoted to telling us what would happen “when the Space Shuttle finally flies”, the fleet of die-cast metal Space Shuttles that circled above the surface of the Earth (in my pockets), the plastic model kits of a non-fictional spacecraft that had never gotten around to flying…
(And yes, each one is actually a specific shuttle, in the order that I got them as a kid, and as such is sitting next to its name. The one with the tail cover is the Enterprise.)
For just a moment, the future was bright.
As of March 2017, we are now in a longer gap between spaceflights launched from American soil than the gap between the final Apollo mission (1975’s international Apollo-Soyuz Test Project flight) and the first Shuttle launch. When the next crew of astronauts blasts off from the U.S., whether they’re aboard NASA’s Orion, or SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the Boeing CST-100 Starliner, or something else, here’s hoping that my kids get that same sense of wonder – even if it’s a similar kind of naïve, momentary wonder – as I got from watching this: a moment where, in the future, anything could happen.