In Our View: Big Birds Retiring

Shuttle launches for last time, and Americans search for new space heroes

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Quickly now, name the crew members of the space shuttle Atlantis. It’s a sad commentary on current society that the names of these four heroes aren’t as familiar as, say, the winners of “American Idol” or “Dancing With the Stars.” But in another way, their lack of fame demonstrates how successful America’s space shuttle program became over 30 years. We’ve taken it for granted to that extent; after 135 missions, the heroes list is too long to memorize.

For the record, the Atlantis crew includes Commander Christopher Ferguson, co-pilot Douglas Hurley, Rex Walheim and Sandra Magnus. Why are there only four and not the usual shuttle crew of six or seven? Well, the answer elicits more sadness among space-travel aficionados. It’s to meet the limited capacity of the Russian Soyuz capsule, which would be used if the crew cannot use the Atlantis to leave the International Space Station. That’s because there will be no more shuttle flights. Or, as Ferguson told launch director Mike Leinbach Friday morning, “Let’s light this fire one more time, Mike, and witness this great nation at its best.”

The last six words in that command are what Americans should remember most about the space shuttle program. It was this great nation at its best. Certainly not perfection, mind you. Indeed, 14 astronauts were killed in two shuttle disasters: the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003. But our great nation at its best, maximizing the powerful blend of innovation and exploration, flexing the aggregate of science and valor.

The political-scientific funding debate will rage on for many years, likely unresolved. But already we know no astronaut will leave American soil for three to five years. And however you feel about the $196 billion spent on the entire space shuttle program (an average of $1.45 billion per flight), this lapse in U.S. space exploration elicits melancholy at best, and perhaps is even depressing. So we understand why former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin complained that “for us to abandon that in favor of nothing is a mistake of strategic proportions.”

Part of the dejection is rooted in Clark County, where numerous connections have been made to space shuttle flights. Among those heroes is Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger. Before she carried the Hudson’s Bay High School banner into space aboard the space shuttle Discovery last year, she taught science and astronomy for five years at the school from 1999 to 2004. She also carried a T-shirt from McLoughlin Middle School, where he husband, Jason, taught social studies until 2004.

Earlier this year, the space shuttle Discovery crew included Mike Barratt, a co-valedictorian of Camas High School’s Class of 1977.

Local residents have contributed to space shuttle flights in other ways here on the ground. Farouk Huneidi was part of the team that designed the International Space Station before he retired in Salmon Creek. John Rehr taught water-survival skills to Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and other astronauts before he moved to Vancouver.

The magnitude of the space shuttle’s contributions is found in many statistics. For example, the five shuttles have traveled more than half a billion miles in space. Still, Americans have known for a long time that this final launch would occur. President George W. Bush in 2004 announced retirement of the shuttle program and redirected NASA toward moon flights. President Barack Obama abandoned that plan and further reduced NASA funding.

Now it’s up to private companies to continue the legacy. American ingenuity thrives in the private sector, often better than in the public sector, but it’s still a little sad to see the big, black-bellied birds go bye-bye.