A driving passion in my life has long been the multi-faceted world of aerospace. Planes and space (and space travel) held a fascination for me for almost as long as I can remember. Though not always talked about at home, I knew my Uncle Foster had been a Navy pilot lost in WWII and learned one day that my Uncle Sam had been one of the early pilots (and was rumored to have even done some barnstorming). Add to that getting to take a flight or two at an early age, back in a time when it was still expected to wear a coat and tie to do so no matter your age, and having an uncle who was an Air Force fighter pilot and a cousin hired by Von Braun straight out of college, well...
In high school, I was exposed to realms of aerospace that I had not considered before, from energy production to resources, research to overhead imagery. I was (and am) a Science Fiction geek, with a strong interest in the science part -- so much so that later in life I became a science guest at a few science fiction conventions. The original Star Trek caught my imagination on fire, and my favorite character was Scotty (with Spock coming in at second). Despite some severe deficiencies in math, I was determined to pursue a path of engineer, Air Force, and astronaut and entered engineering school to make that happen. Sadly, the deficiencies could not be overcome and the Air Force at the time only wanted those with perfect 20/20 vision.
Yet, it mapped out a better future for me. I left Air Force ROTC and went Army ROTC. I found a niche translating scientificese and engeneerese into something vaguely approaching American (gave up on trying for English years ago). My passion for photography found a paying outlet, and I moved into science journalism and then on into science and high-technology communications (public relations, marketing, and business development). I even earned my pilots license though sadly I was not able to afford keeping it current.
In many respects, my career began with the Space Shuttle. While still trying to batter my way to an engineering degree and a pilot's slot, I talked my way into press credentials for the first shuttle launch. WIth the aid and company of a fellow gonzo (student) writer (neither one of us fit the current journalistic mold, IMO), we went and had grand adventures of high (tours, meetings, swag, and more) and low (semi-naked ladies using switchblades on cars, and scaring the hell out of obnoxious kids while sleeping on the beach) types.
I started covering more launches, and even got some money from the articles. I got to meet up with Jimmy Doohan yet again at that first shuttle launch. We had met years before, and -- once he made sure I knew the difference between Hollywood and reality -- he encouraged me to pursue my engineering and science dreams. He not only recorded promos for the radio work I was doing, but also spent a delightful time teaching me to do different accents. He was a veteran, a gentleman, and even more fun than his character. As a bit of a side note, I kept bumping in to him at science fiction conventions, and in part through him got to meet some of the other cast members. I even ended up one time as body guard to Walter Koenig, though he really didn't want one (the event organizers did). Takei is a riot, Nichelle Nichols a delight, and the ongoing war of practical jokes between some of them is a source of much laughter and amusement. Seeing what they do to their friends, I never want to get on their bad side, who knows where my bicycle or hotel room key would end up...
After I left the hallowed halls of science journalism and went to the dark side (/sarc), I ended up working at an Air Force R&D center and then twice as a contractor for NASA. The first time at NASA had me working a variety of Spacelab missions, and for a science dilettante, it was hog heaven as I had to learn about everything from plasma physics to protein crystallography, and then translate it all into appropriate language for various target audiences. Even better for my inner geek, I got to train on some of it and work some of the equipment. Between this, getting to work with some of the astronauts, and getting to "fly" some of the shuttle simulators, it made for a very happy geek.
Fact was, however, that it left me a very unsatisfied geek. The Shuttle was an ambitious system, but one that was also a major kludge. It was overly complex and would never get close to the dreams of a truly reusable system since it had to be rather extensively rebuilt after each mission. The design was the worst of several worlds, as the mission changed repeatedly during development. That it has worked as well as it has is a testament to many, and they should be proud of the work done to keep the system flying.
There is much I could say, but it would take time I don't have and really is the subject of multiple posts. The short version is, the Shuttle was a dead-end and NASA has been the major roadblock in regards low-cost, reliable, and regular access to space for decades. NASA has produced tons of paper, but little in the way of bent metal for any new launch system in decades. Yet, it was unwilling, and even actively opposed, to letting anyone else do so.
As much as I am sad to see this last Shuttle flight, I am glad as well. Space, and the reliable low-cost access to space, is too damn important to be left in the bureaucratic hands of NASA. It is well past time that the torch be passed.
I am glad to see a growing commercial launch industry. The X-prize has helped, and I am glad to see the emphasis on using commercial launch and other commercial-off-the-shelf technology (started under W, incidentally, who discovered about 48 billion reasons not to trust some key people at NASA right after he was inaugurated) get the push it deserves. My second time as a contractor for NASA was involved in developing the customer base needed to support such activities, via commerical research (research by commercial companies for themselves). I've had the pleasure of watching a variety of companies such as (but not limited to) Bigelow, Scaled Composites/Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, and XCOR start and grow. In the interest of transparency, I do know some of the people who work at some of these companies, consider some of them friends. I wish them all long and prosperous futures.
Right now, the cost to put a pound of useful payload into orbit is north of $10,000 per pound. According to some, well north. If you drop that cost to $1,000 per pound, it makes all sorts of things possible, from flying regular (not billionaire/millionaire) tourists to research. Drop that closer to $100 per pound, and the possibilities are endless. I've kept some business ideas/plans around for the day we get close to $1,000 a pound as you can start to have very effective and prosperous space businesses (not just launch) at that point.
For all that the Shuttle started and has been a part of my career, I am not truly sad. Nostalgic, yes, but sad, no. Where NASA excelled was in pushing cutting edge and bleeding edge technology, in busting through the envelope of the day. Let it focus there, restructured to do that and do it well.
The Shuttle is dead. Long live Commercial Space.