The Final Journey of the Space Shuttle

Allen Yeh

The Final Journey of the Space Shuttle

An era has ended. A few days ago, on July 8, 2011, the last Space Shuttle launch in history occurred. After 30 years and 134 flights, STS-135 (STS stands for “Space Transportation System,” the designation for the Space Shuttle’s voyages) marks the last journey of the fabled spacecraft. The Shuttle Atlantis is still in space and will return to earth on July 20, 2011, which is the 42nd anniversary of mankind’s first landing on the moon, when Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969.

Let’s rewind to the beginning: STS-1 launched on April 12, 1981, with a two-man crew, Robert L. Crippen and John W. Young, aboard theColumbia.  The Space Shuttle was revolutionary because it was the first reusable spacecraft in history. The U.S. space program’s manned space flights began with the Mercury program, then Gemini, then Apollo, and finally the Space Shuttle. All of them, except for the Shuttle, were single-use spacecraft.

Since the launch of STS-1, four more Shuttles have been built:ChallengerDiscoveryAtlantis, and Endeavour (there was also a prototype Shuttle called Enterprise which was built but never made it into space). Tragically, Challenger was lost in 1986 upon takeoff, andColumbia was destroyed just minutes before landing in 2003. Endeavourand Atlantis were built to replace the two lost Shuttles, and they also made the final two Shuttle voyages, respectively. The Space Shuttle program was designed to last only 20 years, but in fact has lasted 30. But it was time for retirement.

This final flight of the Shuttle has a four-person crew of Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandra Magnus, and Rex Walheim. Every Shuttle flight has a unique patch or insignia. The patch of STS-135 looks like the patch of STS-1 (to pay tribute to it) with the “Omega” symbol surrounding it (representing the “last”). Tickets were going for several hundred dollars on eBay to see the final launch.

Almost nothing makes me feel more proud to be American than the space program. This may seem odd, given that space seems to transcend earth-bound national definitions, and represents the dreams of a shared humanity as it explores “the final frontier” out there. But growing up, I saw the Space Race as the peaceful side of the Cold War, and one that represented knowledge, not destruction. As a kid, my dream was to become an astronaut, and I loved following the progress of the space program. I wasn’t alive in 1969, but if I were, I would’ve remembered (like everyone else) where exactly I was when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon. This is reminiscent of how everyone remembered exactly where they were when the Twin Towers were hit on 9/11. Likewise, the destruction of two Space Shuttles shook up our nation and consolidated our national spirit almost as much as the events of 9/11 did.

In this patriotic spirit, I visited the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, on the 4th of July this year. And about six months ago, I visited the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA has a number of space centers scattered across the country, but the Johnson Space Center (JSC) and the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) are by far the most famous. What’s the difference between them? Simply put, the former is where Mission Control is located and astronaut training occurs; the latter is where the spacecraft launches happen. The reason for the KSC being in Florida is for practical reasons: it is easier to achieve tangential velocity when closer to the equator, which means less fuel needed for takeoff. The reason for the JSC being in Texas is for political reasons: President Lyndon B. Johnson (a native Texan) said he’d fund the Center if it was built in Texas! And why are these space centers named after these two men? Remember it was President Kennedy who vowed to put the first man on the moon (though, due to his assassination, it was under President Nixon a decade later that the vision was fulfilled), and his VP and eventual successor as President, Lyndon Johnson, continued his space dream.

When I was at the JSC, the highlight of the place was the Mission Control center, where these famous quotes were first heard: “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed” (Apollo 11) and “Houston, we have a problem” (Apollo 13). Sitting in that room and imagining those quotes made my spine tingle. At the KSC, the highlight was the launch pad site where the Space Shuttles take off. Though I didn’t see a launch, I can only imagine what an electrifying sight that would be!

Speaking of politics, the four remaining shuttles will be retired to Los Angeles (Endeavour), Florida (Atlantis), New York City (Enterprise), and Washington D.C. (Discovery). Cape Canaveral, Florida, makes perfect sense since that is where the KSC is located and the Shuttles are launched, and even L.A. makes sense because Edwards Air Force Base is where the Shuttles land; but New York has no logical reason other than it is the largest city in America. It is purely for political reasons that it got a Shuttle. Washington D.C. (specifically, the Smithsonian) does make sense as the nation’s capital, though the Air & Space Museum already has a prototype Shuttle (the Enterprise), but that Shuttle is moving to NYC so it would not be redundant. The real crime is that Houston didn’t get one. Houstonians are rightfully angry about this decision, but when politics comes into play, a lot of hands are tied. It is sorely disappointing. Seattle is also chagrined not to get one, as they have long been the aerospace industry’s headquarters what with Boeing (originally) and the Museum of Flight based there.

Future of the U.S. Space Program

Contrary to popular opinion, NASA is not going defunct, though its spacecraft launches will be put on hold for a while. The replacement for the Space Shuttle is called the MPCV (Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle), which will resemble more of the type of rocket that was used in the Apollo program. It will also be a non-reusable spacecraft. Ironically, for all the advantages that the Shuttle was touted to have, actually it is more expensive to maintain a reusable spacecraft. Every time the Shuttle comes home, it has to be taken apart, inspected, cleaned, worn parts replaced, and the whole thing put back together again. It’s cheaper just to build a single-use spacecraft from scratch each time. This is akin to the fact that it’s cheaper to build a new house than to renovate an existing structure; or for you academics out there, it’s easier to rewrite a paper than to revise it!

The MPCV single-use vehicle is going to be called the Orion. Unlike the Shuttle which was never designed to go beyond low Earth orbit (it was built just to “shuttle” things back-and-forth from Earth to the International Space Station aka ISS), the Orion will be able to go into deep space:  to asteroids, to the moon again, to Mars, and beyond. In the meanwhile, American astronauts who want to go to the ISS will have to hitch a ride with the Russian cosmonauts, who launch theirSoyuz space capsules from Kazakhstan. The Soyuz is actually a relatively economical way of getting to the ISS, but it will cost the U.S. about $50 million per astronaut to hitch a ride with the Russian Space Agency. But my, how things have changed since the Cold War—this kind of cooperation would’ve been unthinkable 30 years ago! Speaking of cooperation, the ISS is supported by fifteen nations but the bulk of the work and finances are supported by only two countries: the USA and Russia. Though the Orion will serve the deep space missions, the replacement of the Space Shuttle (to bring supplies to the ISS, so as to not continue relying on the Russians) will be the Dragon spacecraft manufactured by the company SpaceX.

President Obama has said that his concrete goals are to put Americans on an asteroid by 2025, and then on Mars sometime in the 2030s. Considering that it took only 8 years between the first American in space in 1961 and the first man on the moon in 1969, perhaps it is not overly ambitious to expect this compressed timeline to be realistic!Apollo brought us to the moon; the Space Shuttle brought us to the International Space Station; and Orion will take us to Mars.

Space and Christianity

Sometimes I worry that the space program would resemble a modern-day Tower of Babel. Are humans overreaching ourselves by shooting for the stars, places that we were not designed to go? Is God going to strike us down as a result? I think of Star Trek V: The Final Frontierwhere the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise (which is where the first Space Shuttle got its name) goes to the end of the universe to encounter “God.” It just all seems ridiculous, but science and Christianity are not mutually exclusive as they have been so long painted to be. For far too long we Christians have been victims of the stereotypical reputation of the Catholic Church denying Galileo and Copernicus the heliocentric view of the Solar System. That is probably second to the Crusades in terms of negative historical memory that never seems to die. Compound this by the evolution vs. creation debate and the Scopes monkey trial that came out of the dichotomistic twentieth century, and it leaves Christianity looking like it has no compatibility with science at all. But God created science! Science has long pointed to God (just look at all the scientists in history who were devout believers—Bacon, Newton, Descartes, Kelvin, Joule, Linnaeus, Mendel, Boyle, Kepler, Collins, and yes even Galileo and Copernicus)! So there is absolutely no reason why the space program should be anti-God.

Here are a few “Space + Christianity” moments:

-The Christmas episode: During the first-ever manned flight to the moon (though they did not land on its surface), the Apollo 8 crew read from Genesis 1:1-10 (the creation of the world) live on Christmas Eve, 1968, as they orbited the moon and looked back on the Earth. This broadcast was the most-watched TV program of all time up to this point in history. Astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders took turns reading the Scripture text. Infamously, a renowned atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair protested this broadcast and sued the U.S. government for the affront but lost the case.

-The Communion episode: Right before Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, his fellow astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, an elder at his Presbyterian church back on Earth, took communion on board the Lunar Module. He had prepared ahead of time a small wafer and wine. Because of the issues with the O’Hair lawsuit in the Apollo 8 reading of Genesis, NASA made Aldrin maintain radio silence, but he still took the Eucharist elements and read John 15:5 (“I am the vine, you are the branches…”) while Armstrong looked on. So, the first liquid poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, was the wine and the bread!

[The above two can be seen in the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon produced by Tom Hanks after the Apollo 13 movie came out—12 one-hour episodes that are really dramatized excellently. What's great is that Tom Hanks left all the Christianity in there! Especially watch episodes #4 ("1968") and #6 ("Mare Tranquilitatis").]

-The Lunar Bible series: The Apollo 1 mission ended tragically in a launch pad fire that killed three astronauts: Edward H. White II, Roger B. Chaffee, and Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom.* White had the vision of carrying a Bible to the moon, so the Apollo Prayer League was formed to fulfill White’s dream posthumously. Because of weight restrictions onboard, this was finally made possible with the invention of the “Lunar Bible,” a 2×2 inch microfilm containing the whole KJV Bible on it. It took three tries for the Bible to make it to the moon. On Apollo 12, the Bible was accidentally placed on the command module rather than in the lunar module so it made it to the moon’s orbit but not the surface.  Ironically,Apollo 13 was the ill-fated mission in which the astronauts had to abort the moon landing due to an explosion onboard. Instead of failure, perhaps you might look at it like this: that was the mission in which life was rescued from near-hopelessness—the theme of the Bible itself! Finally, on February 5, 1971, the Bible successfully touched down on the moon’s surface in Apollo 14.

*Did you know that there are three parks in the city of Fullerton, California (right next to Biola University), named after the three Apollo 1astronauts who died? The reason for this is because of a man named Alan Morton, who started in the aerospace industry at North American Rockwell in Downey, but eventually became a real estate agent in Fullerton. He persuaded the city council to name the three parks after the first astronauts to die in the line of duty.

-C.S. Lewis’s Space trilogy: For a Christian take on science fiction, read C.S. Lewis who creatively tackles the subject with Out of the Silent PlanetPerelandra, and That Hideous Strength. I was struck by how much he seemed to understand the physics of outer space when his books were written some 20 years before man first made it into space! However, it must be said that Lewis abhorred the name “space” for his trilogy (which was a publisher decision)—that word implies emptiness, and Lewis thought it was anything but empty, but rather full of God’s glory. He preferred the word “heavens.” Here’s an excerpt from Out of the Silent Planet, p. 34, when the hero of the story, Ransom, first ventures into space:

“A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking or years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now—now that the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it ‘dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he saw now that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes—and here, with how many more! No: space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens—the heavens which declared the glory…”

Astronaut trivia

(answers at bottom)

1. Who was the first man in space?

2. Who was the first American in space?

3. Who was the first American to orbit the Earth?

4. Who was the first woman in space?

5. Who was the first American woman in space?

6. Who was the first man to walk in space?

7. Who was the first American to walk in space?

8. Who was the first man on the moon?

9. Who was the last man on the moon?

10. How many astronauts have died in the line of duty?

11. What was the largest rocket ever built and launched?

12. Which was the third country to send humans into space, after Russia and the USA?

13. The Great Wall of China is the only manmade object visible from space: true or false?


1. Yuri Gagarin, a Russian, in 1958, aboard Vostok 1. He not only went into space but orbited the Earth. This accomplishment scared the Americans (that the Russians were already so advanced) and started the Space Race.

2. Alan Shepherd, in 1961, aboard Mercury 3. He did not even orbit the Earth, he merely went up into space for 15 minutes. This is how far behind the Americans were compared to the Russians.

3. John Glenn, in 1962, aboard Mercury 6.

4. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova aboard Vostok 6 in 1963. Yep, that’s right: the Russians beat us yet again.

5. Astronaut Sally Ride aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger on STS-7 in 1983.

6. Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov in 1963 aboard Voskhod 2. Darn those Russians—one-upped America again!

7. Astronaut Edward H. White II in 1965 aboard Gemini 4.

8. OK, this was an easy one: everyone knows it was Neil Armstrong, an American! Finally the Americans beat the Russians in something in the Space Race! The Russians just seemed to capitulate after this; they never landed a man on the moon.

9. Ah, not as easy as the last question is it? It was astronaut Gene Cernan aboard the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Amazing that we haven’t landed a man on the moon since then! But there are plans to return: so Cernan may not be the “last man on the moon” for much longer.

10. Seventeen. Three in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire in ’67, seven on the Space Shuttle Challenger in ’86, and seven on the Space ShuttleColumbia in ’03. If you don’t count Apollo 1, which occurred while still on Earth during a training exercise, really the only space fatalities have been as a result of the Space Shuttle. It is amazing that throughout the ’60s and ’70s, despite the primitive technology they had back then, and the daring trips to the moon (including an ill-fated but no-fatalitiesApollo 13 mission), nobody ever died in space.

11. Saturn V, which was the first (and to this date, still the only) interplanetary piloted spacecraft. It was the rocket that brought theApollo missions to the moon. At 363 feet tall, it was the length of a football field or more than three times the height of the Statue of Liberty.

12. China. Yang Liwei was the first Chinese astronaut in space in 2003, aboard the Shenzhou V which was based on the Russian Soyuzspacecraft with extensive modifications.

13. False. This is an urban legend (or maybe more appropriately,galactic legend?). When Yang Liwei returned from his maiden voyage to space, the Chinese media pounced on this question, hoping for the affirmative. He denied it. If you think about it, it makes sense: the Great Wall of China is very long, but only the width of a few people. That’s like me asking you, “Can you see that super-long string a mile away?” No matter how long a string it is, it is far too thin to be able to see from a mile away. And the Great Wall is too thin to see from space, despite its 5500-mile length.

Allen Yeh is a missiologist who specializes in Latin America and China. He also has other academic interests in history, classical music, homiletics, social justice, and Jonathan Edwards. He earned his B.A. from Yale, M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell, M.Th. from Edinburgh, and D.Phil. from Oxford. Despite this alphabet soup, he believes that experience is the greatest teacher of all (besides the Bible). He can be found blogging at Scriptorium Daily, where this article originated. Used with permission.

Publication date: July 11, 2011