Yesterday morning I sat glued to my computer screen, watching NASA’s live feed of the last ever Space Shuttle landing. Needless to say, the computer crashed just as the Atlantis orbiter was about to land, but the whole experience took me back to the last landing which I watched, the very first of them.
With time, we have all become a bit blase about the Shuttle, but back in the early 1980s it was big news. In late 1980 or early 1981 NASA even strapped one to a specially adapted jet and flew it around the world to show it off, and I remember the excitement and the rush to look out of the window as it flew over our school one lunchtime.
If anything, the landing of the first Shuttle – the ill-fated Columbia – was even more of a story than the launch of it. Putting craft into space wasn’t exactly a new trick. Bringing them back again, however, was unique.
Moreover, the landing was, whether by accident or design, going to happen during peak viewing time in the UK. After dinner, I sat glued to the television, watching the preparations taking place on the ground. From somewhere, a commentator was spouting a whole dictionary full of alien phrases, such as ‘re-entry burn’ – language which had never been used before, because it had never been needed before.
And then, through the heat haze of a spring Florida day, it appeared. A gleaming white, surprisingly small, plane-like machine came gliding over the horizon. My first thought was how square it looked, as if it had been built from Lego. My second was to wonder if it was going to stop in time.
Of course, it did stop. As the wheels touched the ground a huge parachute deployed and brought it to a standstill. And then came a surprise, as a giant fan was wheeled out and the commentator announced that it would be some time before the two pilots appeared, as the fan had to blow away ‘toxic space gases’ from the craft.
At which point I lost interest and turned off.