The Space Shuttle is no more. Atlantis returned safely to Earth yesterday, ending the final mission of NASA’s 30-year program. The Shuttle was, as Christopher Mims aptly put it on Technology Review, “one of the most complicated pieces of technology ever conceived.” It was also a triumph of design in the best, most expansive sense of the word: The STS (Space Transportation System) program literally set out to rethink manned spaceflight from the ground up. Post-Apollo, sending people into space became a design problem: not just “how,” but why“ What if manned spaceflight was no longer a Cold War pissing match or a bid for the glory of mankind, but as routine — mundane, even — as long-distance trucking” That’s lateral thinking that would put IDEO or frog design to shame — yet it came out of a massive government agency. Not only that, it got built. And it worked. For 30 years and 135 missions.
To celebrate that success, and to capture my own mixed emotions about the end of the STS, here‘s a Shuttle tribute montage that I made:
Of course, “it worked” isn’t actually that simple. Challenger and Columbia are a testament to that. And the vision of routine “space trucking” never came to practical fruition either. Ironically, though, the design vision was too successful — even though every Shuttle mission was risky, experimental, and expensive, the American people did come to consider it a mundane event, barely worth flipping the channel to watch during commercials. Hey, did you hear one of the space mechanics dropped a wrench in orbit today? Haw, haw!
But the Shuttle did touch us and connect with us and inspire us, in the way that only world-class design can. It may have been a “space truck” in our heads but in our hearts it was a symbol more powerful and global than the Nike swoosh, Apple logo, or possibly even the American flag. The Space Shuttle, as an experimental vehicle, outlived its usefulness. But as an emotional lodestone — for NASA, for America, for the idea that humans, as a species, can take something awesome and terrible as going into space and make it look as easy as flying an airplane — it was essential. And there is a void in its wake. Filling it will require another quantum leap in not just science and engineering, but also in design thinking — in “solving for why.”
[A different film: Every Shuttle mission in one amazing highlight reel.]
[Top image via Wikimedia Commons]