In March 1981 the imminent launch of the first space shuttle, Columbia, made the cover of Discover’s sixth issue. Inside, author Dennis Overbye expressed the confidence and hope surrounding the reusable spacecraft—what he called America’s “brand-new chariot to the stars.” “By the end of the decade,” he wrote, “shuttles should be making dozens of trips a year into orbit. . . . The goal is to make space accessible, and going there economical and almost routine.”
Overbye, now a science reporter for The New York Times, also noted a “skin disease” on the surface of Columbia and mentioned that despite NASA’s claims to have fixed the problem, “some engineers fear that the loss of tiles during reentry could lead to the loss of the spacecraft.” Nearly 22 years later, those words proved prophetic. Columbia disintegrated during reentry—an accident caused not by missing tiles but rather a related panel of shielding that was probably damaged during takeoff. All seven astronauts on board were killed and future missions suspended.
Today, the prospect of another shuttle launch is sparking a different kind of anticipation. When Discovery’s boosters fire in May or June—the first post-Columbia flight—the entire program will gasp for new life. At best it will be a temporary reprieve. Shuttles are marked for retirement by decade’s end; their final missions will be limited to routine trips hauling astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station. Such a demotion betrays the promise and optimism Discover found in 1981. “It is time for a real American space program again, one that will not languish a decade later when the fashions change,” Overbye wrote. “The shuttle is a good first step.”