April 12, 2011— -- Three decades ago, the Space Shuttle Columbia blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center for the very first time.
Since that inaugural launch on April 12, 1981, NASA's fleet of orbiters -- Columbia, Discovery, Challenger, Atlantis and Endeavour -- has flown 131 missions. Discovery completed its final mission in March, Endeavour will launch for the last time later this month and Atlantis is expected to make its swan song in June.
NASA's shuttle program will be forever retired after that Atlantis flight, and while private space companies are planning flights, the future of the NASA space program is unclear.
Despite the space program's many successes, it has not been without tragedy -- Challenger and Columbia, and their crews, were lost in 1986 and 2003, respectively.
While those disasters color the space program's history, they don't paint over its accomplishments. Over the past 30 years, the space shuttle fleet has open up space to hundreds of astronauts, including women, minorities and travelers from other countries.
NASA's legendary observatories -- Hubble, Chandra and Compton -- were also launched by the space shuttles. And the International Space Station could not have been built without the shuttle.
How should the space shuttle be remembered? On the 30th anniversary of the shuttle, below are some personal thoughts from NASA astronauts:
Astronauts Remember the Space Shuttle's 30-Year History
Cady Coleman (from the International Space Station): "One of the space shuttle's greatest accomplishments is how commonplace it has made space travel -- children think what we do is normal, that travel off our planet is a very real thing. They understand the joy of space exploration."
(Coleman, by the way, brought her flute to the space station, and just finished a duet with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, a song that has now been posted on You Tube.)
Pam Melroy: "When I look at the 30 years, what I really see is inspired human beings who dreamed and imagined -- that is what I see every time I see the space shuttle launch, that is what I see when I dock to the space station.
I am in awe of what humans can imagine and execute. I believe the next generation space shuttle will rise on the lessons learned from those years and I think the pace is really going to pick up."
Mike Fincke: "I was 14 years old when it launched, and I was probably the most excited person, and now to see it has an ending to it, I can't believe it. I am looking forward to what is going to be next.
We are going to go back beyond low Earth orbit, we are going to leave the surly bonds of Earth and go beyond, and start to explore the solar system.
How Will Future Humans Remember the Space Shuttle?
Stan Love: "It will be remembered as, dare I say it, oversold. To begin with, they thought we would be flying 50 flights a year -- we are not even close to that. It will be remembered as taking an incredible amount of human attention to make sure that it flies safely. It takes so much dedicated craftsmanship to keep the bird in the air.
It will be remembered as too expensive to support. That's the reason why we can't keep flying it forever. However, when it's gone, we will be begging to get it back because, for all of it's faults, the enormous cost of keeping it flying, it is probably the most capable machine we will have for a hundred years."
Mike Foreman: "I think people will look back in a hundred years and see the space shuttle program as a stepping stone between the early space program and how we evolved into a space station -- a living, working in space for long periods of time society.
And, eventually, we'll move off Earth, out of the Earth's orbit, and on to the moon ... [and] onto Mars, and I think that shuttle will stand out as sort of stepping stone that really got us involved heavily in space for a long period of time."
Garrett Reisman: "It is definitely bittersweet because it's such an amazing vehicle. When we got a chance to walk alongside of it when it rolled to the pad, you cannot help but think that it's a mystical creature, you have this sense of reverence when you look at it."
John Phillips: "The legacy of the space shuttle is, of course, the two tragedies, the loss of 14 very good people. And a lot of people will remember mostly that. But what they should remember, in addition to that, is that we will have had a vehicle that would fly for 30 years.
It is still the only reusable spacecraft. No one else has one, and it can do things no other spacecraft can do, and no other spacecraft in the foreseeable future can do -- designed by guys in the 1970s with slide rules and pocket protectors."