April 12, 1981 is a day I’ll never forget. I was only nine-years-old, but it’s hard to forget the first time you saw the Space Shuttle take off.
I had always been fascinated by space, and I had been reading everything I could about the space shuttle program for as long as I could remember: Test flights on the back of especially equipped 747s, glide tests, firing the boosters and everything else. To see it launch, even if it was on my TV, was still a thrill. I actually have that first launch on a VHS tape to this day, and despite having thrown out the majority of my cassettes, that one still sits on a shelf in my family room.
For those of you who have never seen the first launch before, you might notice the external fuel tank is white as opposed to the rust color that became so well known. This was a process that NASA only used for the first two missions out of fear that ultraviolet light might damage the tank while it sat on the launch pad. The engineers figured out by the third mission that it wasn’t a concern and they stopped applying the paint which saved almost 600 pounds of weight during lift off. All of that reduced weight meant that much more cargo could be carried on the orbiter itself, so it was a win-win situation all around.
With the delivery of the Discovery to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. this week, it truly does feel like the book has been closed on this chapter of the space program. Although I knew the last mission had been flown, and that the orbiters were being retired, to actually see her delivered really did finalize it in my mind.
The Space Shuttle program was a major moment in human history, and will be one that is long remembered.