I’m young enough that for me, the symbol of space travel has always been the Space Shuttle. I had a glow-in-the-dark Lego Space Shuttle when I was a kid, and I used to put it together and tear it apart all the time. I remember watching the movie Space Camp, which affected me profoundly as a kid. I watched it again recently and was surprised that it holds up pretty well. For me, the Space Shuttle has always been an inspiration and tightly connected with my love of astronomy.
I was in about 3rd grade when the Challenger exploded, and I have an impression of being on the playground at school when I heard the news. This is probably inaccurate, given the malleable nature of memory, but I have the impression anyway. I think I was mostly disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to watch the live video of Christa McAuliffe answering kids’ questions while in outer space. I wish I could say I didn’t repeat any of the stupid jokes about NASA standing for “need another seven astronauts” but I know I did. We were all stupid kids and we didn’t know how to deal with it.
As an adult, I have a much greater appreciation for the determination and the sacrifices that so many people have made for the sake of science and exploration. Not just in the Space Shuttle era, not even just in the space era, but throughout history. It’s hard work and many people have given their lives to see it through. The fact that we keep doing it gives me hope for the future. I sure hope we keep going. I don’t know if there is a secular equivalent of “so long and godspeed”, but if there is, then I would make it my farewell to the Space Shuttle.