Twenty-five years ago today the space shuttle Challenger exploded. The dead crew included the much-publicized first ordinary citizen to be sent into space, schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.
I'll never forget the date, because it was my birthday. But I'll never forget the event for much bigger reasons. The Challenger disaster seemed to signify more than the fallibility of NASA and its technology. It seemed to crystallize a feeling that had been settling over us for years: that the best days of the U.S. space program were in the past.
Nothing has happened since then to change that impression. The shuttle program felt unambitious from the start, since it wasn't really taking us anywhere we hadn't already gone. Also, by 1986 it had become in one sense a victim of its own success—half a dozen successful launches had begun to make space flight seem routine.
It was a far cry from the days of Apollo, when they'd pull us out of our elementary school classes to watch the moon missions on live TV. There we'd be, the whole school massed in the auditorium, squinting from afar at a single black-and-white television set that had been creakily wheeled onto the stage. Apollo was more important than class. It was about how great our country was; even more, it was about the limitless prospects for mankind itself.
The shuttle program could never generate that level of excitement, and while neither the Challenger disaster nor the loss of the Columbia and its crew 17 years later could kill the program, old age has now done so: 2011 is expected to be its retirement year. After that, what? Will the ambitious space programs of nations new to space flight pick up where we and the Russians left off? Will private enterprise do it?