As we count down to the final ever space shuttle mission, I thought I’d post a few photos from the early days of the program, just to remind myself and my Loyal Readers of a time when the world was young and these vehicles were revolutionary, and we couldn’t wait to get them up there because we knew it was going to be a glorious adventure. First up, the official rollout of the prototype shuttle Enterprise on September 17, 1976 (two days after my seventh birthday), with some very special guests in attendance:
If you don’t recognize them, that’s the cast of the original Star Trek television series, minus William Shatner who was apparently too important to show up. (Actually, I don’t know why Shatner wasn’t there, but it’s no secret that he frequently behaved like a colossal jerk during the ’70s and ’80s.) From left to right, we’re looking at Dr. James D. Fletcher, NASA Administrator; DeForest Kelley (Bones); George Takei (Sulu); James Doohan (Scotty, hard to recognize with the beard); Nichelle Nichols (Uhura); Leonard Nimoy (Spock, of course); Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek’s creator and chief promoter); some unidentified dude, probably a NASA official; and Walter Koenig (Chekov).
According to legend, Enterprise was originally supposed to be called the Constitution, but a write-in campaign by hordes of dedicated Trekkies persuaded the powers-that-be to name her instead after their beloved fictional starship Enterprise. (I say “according to legend,” even though that’s pretty much the accepted version of history, because I’ve also heard she was named after the World War II aircraft carrier Enterprise, and that strikes me as far more likely. I just can’t see the bureaucrats in charge of naming something as significant as the first of a new class of spacecraft honoring a defunct TV show in that way. Remember, this was before Star Trek: The Motion Picture, before the sequels and spin-offs and the whole cultural juggernaut that Star Trek would become; in 1976, it was just a decade-old cult thing running in daily syndication, right after Hogan’s Heroes and Bewitched, and right before Hollywood Squares. Of course, Trek was enough of a phenomenon by then that the cast was invited to the unveiling, so I could be wrong…) The real Enterprise would never actually journey into space; she was used only in the Approach and Landing Test (ATL) flights, essentially to prove that a
stubby-winged glider the size of a passenger jet could fly and land safely. There was some early talk that she would later be fitted with engines and sent up into the black, but it was eventually decided she was too heavy compared to the final production models, and it just wouldn’t be cost-effective to make her spaceworthy. These discussions resurfaced after shuttle Challenger was destroyed, but again, the powers-that-be determined it would be cheaper to build a replacement shuttle — Endeavour — out of spare parts instead. Enterprise has been useful from time to time as a test platform when NASA engineers have needed to work out a problem with the in-service orbiters — for example, chunks of foam were fired at a piece of her wing during the investigation into what happened to Columbia — but she’s basically been a museum piece since the mid-80s, and is currently on display at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center.
All that was still ahead in the unknowable future, though. On the day this photo was taken in 1976, the mingling of our pop-cultural dreams and the real-life space program seemed to point the way to some place very different. As young as I was, I was already both a Trekkie and a space buff, and seeing this photo in our local newspaper was nothing short of magical. Maybe that’s why the end of the shuttle program is proving to be so painful for me, because for me the shuttles have always represented the heady intersection between fantasy and reality, and because I still remember the optimistic and adventurous future they were supposed to bring us, the one I wanted so desperately to live in for so many years. Yes, I believed all the hype about orbital factories and space colonies and Man’s Destiny in Space. I was seven, of course I believed it. And you know something? I still want to believe in it. Even while my grown-up rationality is whispering that it’s not going to happen, at least not any time soon, probably not within our lifetimes, and probably not with an American flag on the side of it either. (This is one area in which my usual disdain for jingoistic nationalism fails. I want us up there, innovating and ticking off the “firsts.” Not just humans, not the Russians or the Chinese or the Indians, but good ol’ red-blooded American heroes. Hey, I can’t be a damn commie-pinko-librul all the time.) The shuttles delivered much more than their detractors tend to remember, and I love them dearly and get irritated with those who put them down. But they didn’t bring what they promised us. Or rather, what their PR people promised. How can an aging dreamer who reveres so much of his childhood not be depressed by that hard-to-swallow reality?