My first memory of the space shuttle missions was being at primary school, and us all sitting around in the 3rd year classroom to watch Challenger take off. I was a bit young to really gather what was going on, but I remember the whole thing being cut a bit short, the TV being abruptly turned off, and us all going back to whatever it was we were doing.
The Space Shuttle programme restarting after Challenger was a brave move, but Columbia in 2003 was the last nail in the coffin of the project. As I type this the very last spacewalk from a shuttle is underway, fitting the Robotic Refueling Mission to the space station. Atlantis will land again in another 9 days, and from then on the success of the International Space Station is entirely dependant on the Russian 1960’s Soyuz spacecraft.
The science that the Shuttle enabled is extraordinary – in fact from a geologists perspective the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission alone has been a huge boon to science. That the shuttle has contributed to so many other projects – for example the maintenance and repair of Hubble, turning it from an expensive white elephant to one of the most important astronomy experiments in our history – is a testament to its place in space history.
It may be outdated, expensive, and rough round the edges, but losing the shuttle and the capability it provides is very similar to the loss of Concorde – also outdated, expensive and rough round the edges. They both enabled us to do something that we are no longer able to without them. And for that at least the shuttle programme will be missed.