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Adios, space shuttle -- the cosmos slips a little further away from us

July 23, 2011 |  1:31 pm

Photo: Thousands flocked to Edwards Air Force Base in 1981 to watch the shuttle Columbia land. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times Up, up and away … aaand gone.

Thirty years is an eon in the Space Age, and the eon has just ended with the final flight, the final landing of the space shuttle.

The space shuttle was about making the remarkable routine. Instead of the dramatic splashdowns of the Mercury and Apollo programs, the plucking of capsules and plucky astronauts from the brine, space shuttle launches and landings were meant to seem like the everyday departures and arrivals of big ol’ passenger jets.

It was a strategy that worked too well; we took the shuttle, and the space program, for granted -- until we didn’t, when shuttles blew up, twice,  

In Southern California, the twin sonic booms that heralded an imminent shuttle landing at Edwards Air Force Base reminded of us of California’s legacy of flight and innovation. The nation’s first major air show was held here, at Dominguez Field, in January 1910, not far from where the Goodyear blimp is now moored.

(Which made all the more amusing a headline from the New York Times in October 1994 about an unexpected shuttle landing at Edwards, "After Detour to California, Shuttle Returns to Earth.")

Where the Apollo flights were sleek as sports cars, the shuttle was the SUV, the space equivalent of running errands.

I never got to go to Florida for a shuttle launch, but I was present for two spectacular and spectacularly different landings, the alpha and omega of shuttle spectacles.

The first was the happenstance landing in White Sands, N.M., in March 1982. One of the men in the control tower above the white gypsum sand in New Mexico had done a little rain dance, hoping to force the shuttle to blow off the scheduled Edwards Air Force Base landing and glide down on Runway 17 in New Mexico. And sure enough, the weather in California turned wet and terrible.

As bad as the rains were here, the sand blizzards in New Mexico were wretched. Gritty, flying gypsum drove VIPs back onto their buses, knocked over arrays of TV camera tripods like dominos and forced people to swaddle themselves like extras in "Lawrence of Arabia."  It was so bad that the landing had to be "waved off" for another day, with Columbia finally touching down on a runway that had just been scraped clear of sand. After that massive sandstorm, fewer than 7,000 came back that second day to see Columbia land.

The other landing could not have been a bigger contrast. It was a few months later, on the Fourth of July weekend at Edwards Air Force Base. President Reagan's VIP guest list alone ran to 88 pages, with another half-million regular folks showing up around Rogers Dry Lake to watch Columbia set down in the high desert. This one was, as they say, picture-perfect -- even for me, until my company car broke down late that night on my way back from Edwards.

As the Mercury and Apollo programs were ending, we always had a sense that another manned space program was waiting to take off -- or at least was waiting on NASA’s drawing boards. Now, spaceflight will be about hitching rides with the Russians, or gee-whiz space-carnival rides for the rich, commutes for thrills and commerce in the same suborbital realm that Alan Shepard ventured into 50 years ago.

I met and talked to five of the original seven Mercury astronauts here in L.A. as they marked the 25th anniversary of Shepard’s pioneering flight; John Glenn was stuck in Washington on Senate business and Gus Grissom had died in a capsule fire during a preflight test in 1967.

Deke Slayton told me then that after all the money and attention accorded to the Apollo program, of putting a human on the moon by 1970 -– "there hasn’t been anything like it since. NASA has been a victim of its own successes,’’ with a complacency that I think the public has matched.

After the shuttle, where? Is further exploration too expensive for the public purse? Too daunting for our thinkers and creators? Will the shuttle Endeavor, slated to be put on display here at the California Science Center, be seen by museum-goers as an inspiration, or just as an artifact, a dead-end in the evolution of space science?

Should space now be the domain of commercialized ventures, or of private-public partnerships? Here’s one website’s account of up-in-the-air marketing.

Scott Carpenter told me back then that he’d love to return to space; "any thinking person" would. For the U.S. now, the question becomes, are there thinking people on the ground, in positions of power, who conclude that the nation should again commit to the pure science, the pure exploration of space?

RELATED:

Fixing the economy the scientific way

For Americans, to infinity and beyond

Why we must reinvigorate our interest in science

NASA's shuttle program: An end of an era, or a promising new beginning?

-- Patt Morrison

Photo: Thousands flocked to Edwards Air Force Base in 1981 to watch the shuttle Columbia land. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times

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