The Closing of the First Space Age

by Roger D. Launius - NASA Chief Historian


In one of the most widely anticipated launches in the history of space exploration, the Space Shuttle Discovery, lifted off on 29 October 1998 on the STS-95 mission, carrying a crew of seven that included senator and astronaut John Glenn. Lisa Malone, the voice of launch control, perhaps best characterized the crew when she announced as the shuttle left the ground, "Liftoff of the shuttle Discovery with a crew of six astronaut heros and one American legend." President Clinton was in attendance, as was a large contingent of celebrities from all avenues of life, the first President to view a shuttle launch and the first to attend a human space launch since Richard M. Nixon observed the launch of Apollo 12 in November 1969.

The flight was successful in virtually every way one chooses to measure it. It drew more positive attention than any mission since the Moon landings. It prompted the Clinton administration, whose support of space exploration as been less than enthusiastic, to issue a statement on the many accomplishments taking place in space during the President's nearly six years in office. And the flight itself safely accomplished a series of important scientific and technical tasks, such as deploying the Petite Amateur Naval Satellite (PANSAT) and the Spartan 201 solar science satellite. But the actual flight of STS-95 tells only half of the story, for the mission represents the ending of the first space age. There is an old educators' saying that at some point a student ceases to "learn to read" and begins to "read to learn." As a civilization and a species, STS-95 represents the point where we have now ceased learning how to fly in space, we now know how to do that, and we are beginning its permanent occupation. Perhaps the greatest symbolization for STS-95, since it was the last mission undertaken before the beginning of construction of a permanent presence in space, the International Space Station, is that Glenn closed the first age of learning to fly in space just as he had opened it in 1962 with the first American orbital mission. The two space flights of John Glenn, coming a little more than 36 years apart, bracket that period of learning to fly in space, what will probably be remembered in history as the first space age.

As the first American to orbit the Earth in February 1962 John Glenn's Mercury spaceflight represented the nation's first tentative steps into the hostile reaches of low-Earth orbit. It was the spaceflight equivalent of "See Spot run, run Spot run." In contrast, the sophistication of the most recent STS-95 mission, on which Glenn flew, could be appropriately compared to college level reading comprehension. We've come a long way between those two flights.

The two spaceflights with John Glenn enclose the first space age for the United States. The next age opened with the very next flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, STS-88, in December 1998, lifting the American Unity module to orbit and its astronauts mating it to the Russian Zarya module. This mission marked the beginning of construction for the International Space Station. The space station project links 16 space-faring nations in one of the most ambitious engineering undertakings in history. The facility is a $63 billion complex of laboratories and dormitories with a total habitable volume equal to two Boeing 747 jumbo jets and a wingspan longer than a football field. When completed it will house crews of seven at a time on a perpetual basis, for the purpose of undertaking research in a variety of fields and preparing for human expeditions to the moon and Mars early in the next century.

We are no longer in the first space age of learning to fly in space. As the twentieth century ends and the International Space Station begins construction, as a nation and as a species we are entering a second space age. One in which we are no longer learning to fly in space, but flying to learn … about everything in the universe.

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