Last week marked the formal transfer to the safe keeping of history for part of America's legacy of space flight. Discovery, the third of our country's five space shuttles, in Florida to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum annex in Virginia. This occasion serves as an ideal time to both reflect on the significant scientific achievements made by the shuttle program, and also to renew our national commitment to space exploration.
Since the 1950's, the work of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has resulted in some of our country's most stirring successes. Starting with John Glenn's orbit of the Earth, and continuing with the dramatic voyages to the moon undertaken through the Apollo missions, America's space program has sparked imaginations—particularly those of young people—across this nation. For my generation, those who were in grade school during the 1980s, the space shuttle program was our window to the stars.
The very first launch of a space shuttle occurred on April 12, 1981. Later that year, on Thursday, Nov. 12, Columbia became the first space vehicle to be reused. For this second official launch, schools across the nation, including Youth's Benefit Elementary School in Fallston (where I was then in fourth grade), brought students together to watch Columbia make history. I can still remember the excitement felt by my classmates as we watched the shuttle rocket into the clouds and then beyond into the darkness of space.
Later, we children of the 1980's experienced the collective tragedy of the Challenger disaster. On Tuesday, Jan. 28, 1986, I was sick with the flu and stayed at home from school. I happened to be watching television, and like so many others, witnessed the sudden explosion of the shuttle, a mere 73 seconds after lift-off, resulting in the deaths of seven crew members.
Later, as a high school student, I had the honor of being the spokesperson for Fallston High School's "Name the New Orbiter" team. Our team, the Maryland state finalist, was one of nine team's nationally that were credited with recommending "Endeavour," the name ultimately selected for the shuttle built to replace Challenger.
In spite of the Challenger disaster, and the subsequent 2003 loss of the shuttle Columbia, NASA persevered. Improved space shuttles continued to fly, and our nation did not give up, in spite of the dangers inherent to space flight. Our challenge today is to not falter in our quest to better know the heavens.
In urging America to send a rocket to the moon, President John F. Kennedy eloquently stated, "the exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time." After Kennedy's tragic assassination, his successor Lyndon Johnson aptly said, "today in this moment of new resolve, I would say to all my fellow Americans, let us continue." The words of these two presidents still ring true today. Regardless of the trials and divisions confronting us, our nation can and must continue to reach for the heavens.