Some Thoughts on Space Shuttles and Sunsets

Today, I watched with much of my office as the space shuttle Endeavor flew over our building in Burbank. It was an undeniably cool moment. Certainly an exciting one, but there was also a little sadness mixed in there for me.

Not many people know this, but as a young child, I lived for a couple of years in Lompoc, CA. My father found a job in the town, and we moved there with him at the very tail end of the 70s. If you’ve been there, you’ll know that there’s really not much in Lompoc. It’s largely a military town, and my family isn’t a military one, so it was strange that we moved there. But as a very young boy on the brink of the Reagan years, it was about the coolest place on earth.

The reason is that Lompoc is only a few miles away from Vandenberg Air Force Base, which is why it’s a military town. And Vandenberg, for those of you who don’t know, was a huge part of our nation’s then very thriving space program. I remember being woken up by my father on more than one occasion back then to watch various rockets taking off and missiles being launched (which when you’re four years old, is pretty darn cool). I could see them from my bedroom window. From my window! Admittedly, I don’t remember much else from that early in my life, but I remember that.

At such a young age, I had no basis of comparison when it came to things like rocket launches. For all I knew, watching rockets enter space from your bedroom was something that every kid did in the morning, as common as eating breakfast. I didn’t know that this was something that was pretty rare until I got a bit older, and by then we had moved away.

Outside of the various launches, I really only remember one more thing about that time in my life, and it’s largely why I wanted to see the shuttle today. In the seventies, Vandenberg was selected to become the west coast’s launch and landing site for the space shuttle. As far as I can tell, it was never used as such, but at one point while I was living there, they had one of the space shuttles—I’m assuming Columbia, though I can’t say I know for sure—at the base. And at one point, people of the community were invited to come down and see it.

Now, when I say see it, I don’t mean see it from a distance. I mean, go right on up to it and take a look inside, the same way you might look in an old WWII bomber at an air show. The memory’s a bit hazy, but I can recall being held up to get a good peek inside by one of my parents, and I was surprised by how small everything was inside.

Yes, friends, I’ve actually been in the space shuttle, and my reaction was being slightly underwhelmed. I did mention being young and having no perspective, right?

The point is that now I do. I realize that was something fairly rare. Something that by any standard is pretty darn cool. I realize that I was lucky to be there at that point in time, just as I was lucky to be in a place where I could see the Endeavor fly by overhead today. Seeing the space shuttle so up close and personal as a tyke is one of my earliest memories, and while I never harbored serious dreams of becoming an astronaut, I do attribute those early years for my love of science fiction and appreciation and support of our space program.

Soon, it sounds like everyone will have a chance to see the space shuttle the way that I did, and I hope people take advantage of it. But it’ll be a look back in time, not a look forward, which is what it was when I was a child. These things matter when we’re talking about exploration. The point of exploration is to chart new territory. We should always been looking forward when it comes to space.

I realize things change, and privatizing space exploration and travel makes sense. I’m all in favor of it if it’ll get up back up in space. But the space shuttle’s been flying almost as long as I’ve been alive, so seeing it take one last flight is an emotional thing for me. It’s been a very rough flight at time, but it’s always been our link to the stars. It’s been the closest thing we have to an Enterprise or Millenium Falcon, and now it’s gone.

So goodbye, Endeavor, and farewell, space shuttle program! Yes, you didn’t literally fly off into the sunset, but that’s okay. I think when you’ve been to outer space, that’s no longer necessary.