Bold They Rise
After John Young and I made the first flight of the Space Shuttle aboard Columbia all those years ago, people would sometimes ask me what the best part of the flight was. I would always use John’s classic answer: “The part between takeoff and landing.”
Now that it’s all said and done, I think that describes what the best part of the Space Shuttle program was: the part between our first launch in April 1981 and the last landing in July 2011.
There were some low points in between, particularly the loss of both of the orbiters I had the privilege to fly and their crews, but as a whole I think the shuttle has been one of the most marvelous vehicles that has ever gone into space—a fantastic vehicle unlike anything that’s ever been built.
The Space Shuttle has carried hundreds of people into space and delivered hundreds of tons of payloads into space. The shuttle gave us the Galileo and Magellan probes, which opened our eyes to new worlds, and it let us not only launch the Hubble Space Telescope but also repair and upgrade it time and time again, and Hubble has revolutionized our understanding of not only our solar system but the entire universe. The shuttle carried a lot of classified military payloads early on that probably helped the United States win the Cold War.
The Space Shuttle let us build the International Space Station. The Space Station is an incredible accomplishment, a marvelous complex, but it was the Space Shuttle that taught us that we could build a complicated space vehicle and make it work very well. The Space Station would not have been possible without the Space Shuttle.
But in those early days, I think the shuttle did something else, a little less concrete but just as important. The late ’70s and early ’80s weren’t really a great time for the United States. We’d basically lost the Vietnam War. We’d been through economic hard times, through the hostage crisis in Iran.
President Reagan was shot just before our flight on STS-i. And morale for a lot of people in the country was really low. People were feeling like things just weren’t going right for us.
And that first flight, it was obvious that it was a big deal. It was a big thing for NASA, but it was a big thing for the country. It wasn’t just our accomplishment at NASA; it was an American accomplishment. It was a morale booster for the United States. It was a rallying point for the American people. And the awareness may not be as high now as it was then, but I think that’s still true today. I think you saw that when the shuttle made its last flight; the pride people had in what it had accomplished and the fact that a million people watched it. When I talk to people, they think space exploration is something we need to be doing, for the future of the United States and humankind.
The retirement of the shuttle was kind of bittersweet for me. I’m proud of all it’s accomplished, and I’m sorry to see it end. But I believe in moving on. I’d like to see us get out of Earth orbit and go back to the moon, and to other destinations, and eventually to Mars.
John and I got to see a lot of the development of the Space Shuttle firsthand. As astronauts, we were involved from an operations standpoint, and as the first crew, John and I visited the sites where they were working on the shuttle, getting it ready to fly. We had an outstanding, dedicated team, people who really believed they were doing something important for the nation. When we finally got into the shuttle for that first flight, meeting those thousands of people gave me a lot of confidence that we had a good vehicle to fly on.
I never expected to be selected for that first flight. I thought they would pick someone more experienced to fly with John. I was excited that they picked me, and I was honored to be a part of that flight. All told, that flight was the beginning of something truly amazing, and I’m honored to be one of the thousands of people who made it happen.