Some may think that the great days of interest in space flight were the Sixties.
After all, people were genuinely agog when in 1961 Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in Vostok 1.
Then there were the numerous Apollo missions which culminated in Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin showboating on the moon in 1969.
But it was another craft which reignited our interest in the stars when yours truly was growing up.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) actually began working on designs for a Space Shuttle in 1969.
However, it wasn’t until April 12, 1981 – exactly 20 years after the first manned space flight – that the Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew of two blasted off from Pad A, Launch Complex 39, at the Kennedy Space Center.
They returned to Earth on April 14 having orbited the Earth 37 times during a 54.5-hour mission.
Although the Shuttle was to be involved in a further 134 flights and wasn’t retired from service until last year, it will always be associated with the Eighties.
It launched at the beginning of the decade and in 1986 the programme suffered its first, terrible tragedy.
The Challenger disaster occurred on January 28 that year when Space Shuttle bearing that name broke apart 73 seconds into its flight – leading to the deaths of all seven crew members. After a seal in its right rocket booster failed at lift-off, the Shuttle broke apart over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida as the world watched in horror.
The images of Challenger’s disintegration will stay with those of us who witnessed them on the teatime news for the rest of our lives – in the same way that the footage of the attack on New York’s twin towers does.
That wasn’t to be the last tragedy, of course. The Space Shuttle Columbia broke-up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere on February 1, 2003 – again with the loss of seven lives.
But in spite of these setbacks the Shuttles Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour came through their missions with flying colours and the legacy of the 30-year programme is a proud one.
This unique spacecraft has carried people into orbit repeatedly, launched, recovered and repaired satellites, conducted cutting-edge research and helped to build the International Space Station.
The Space Shuttle itself is iconic for several reasons – not least the fact that it was indeed a ‘shuttle’ for ferrying astronauts to and from Space.
Sort of like a Minilink bus without the bad decor and fag butts.
It was the first reusable spacecraft which allowed the astronauts to land it like an aeroplane. The design itself, of course, was a thing of beauty as well as supremely functional.
Previously we’d grown used to traditional ‘rocket’ ships which pointed skywards and broke into bits before something akin to a Walnut Whip fell back to earth. Or into the sea.
The Shuttle’s aircraft-like design was something which we could all identify with – and which little lads like me imagined piloting in the same way that we dreamed about George Lucas’s X-Wing fighters or Battlestar Galactica’s Vipers.
Indeed, yours truly had a Space Shuttle toy – a little diecast model with cargo bay doors which actually opened!
It was about as close as a chubby asthmatic kid from Sneyd Green was ever going to get to the Shuttle programme.
I’ve missed my chance now, anyway.
The final space shuttle mission, STS-135, ended on July 21, 2011 when Atlantis rolled to a stop at its NASA home port.
Whatever the future of Space travel, the Shuttle’s place in history is assured.
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