This weekend, I took someone up to the California ScienCenter for a birthday treat. (His, this time, not mine.) We started out by looking at various space artifacts, such as this old Gemeni capsule from the mid 1960′s.
It looks so old-fashioned, that one might guess it had nothing that we’d consider “electronics” behind the scenes. In fact, it had a state of the art transistorized computer for flight control. It’s still hard to imagine that astronauts spent days in orbit in a vehicle about the size of a compact car.
Ten years after Gemeni, the Vikings landed on Mars. These state of the art robots visually scanned the Martian surface and performed chemical analysis on scoops of the soil, most notably by spraying water on it and heating it. Viking detected a strange result, but this was determined not to be the result of life, but of peroxides in the soil.
At about the same time as the Viking mission, a new space vehicle was being designed, but it wouldn’t reach orbit until 1981.
For the cynical members of an older generation, it would be a symbol of bureaucracy, a committee-designed delivery van to space, a cold-war attempt to goad the USSR into spending itself into collapse, and the butt of tasteless jokes. “Need another seven astronauts! Hurr hurr hurr!”
But to most of those of my generation, the Space Shuttle would become a symbol for scientific achievement and the search for knowledge. Although the International Space Station still stands for these ideals, I hope that someday soon, a new manned space expedition will capture the hearts and imaginations of the world.