Goodbye Space Shuttle

I wrote this piece a few years ago now, shortly after being blown away by a short film about the space shuttle program. I’m sticking it here because everything I said then is still true now…

Earlier this year the Atlantis space shuttle was launched from the Kennedy Space Center for the very last time. After 30 years, 135 missions, 21,000 orbits of the Earth and half a billion miles, this iconic feat of technical brilliance drew to an end. Now, I will happily admit that my geekery when it comes to space is almost without limits and thankfully I’m not alone.

Adam Rutherford is an editor for the academic journal Nature and earlier this year he finished work on a short film of sublime brilliance. His love letter to the space shuttle has been a recent discovery for me and this week, I was lucky enough to see it on a big screen with the sound turned up to eleven. It was been available to view online for several months so I am a little late to the party but I am really unashamedly delighted to have found it.

Within its eight minutes, we have footage from all five shuttles (Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour) in chronological order, spliced together to create a portrait of a single mission. There’s more to this than zero-gravity gymnastics though. From the very first roll and yaw during launch, we see the triumph and pride in everyone involved. The shots of the Earth are, of course, dramatic and profound but the footage from inside the shuttle itself shows, amid the claustrophobia and technical work, a real joy from everyone involved. It’s a potted history, a mere snapshot but it manages to encapsulate those 30 years beautifully.

Inevitably, we also see the loss of both Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 and collectively 14 crew members who lost their lives in those ill fated missions. I was seven years old at the time of the Challenger disaster and the image of the break up and subsequent plumes spiralling into the sky stick with me even today. The danger faced by the crews on all of the missions should not be understated and the bravery of the men and women who continued to fly after both shuttle disasters is an astonishing example of our spirit of exploration.

The film is hugely moving both visually and sonically. The soundtrack itself is a beautiful thing, consisting of two specially mixed and edited songs (PX3 and Retreat! Retreat!) by Sheffield band 65daysofstatic. They do a grand job creating bold, atmospheric instrumental post-rock and the choice to have them soundtrack this remarkable film is beyond perfect. The band are, apparently, massive space nerds themselves so it’s no surprise that they were keen to get involved. Rutherford himself says “I knew that I wanted this to be a music video, and that the soundtrack should be soaring, anthemic and unapologetically triumphalist” 65daysofstatic have been around for a while but if this collaboration leads to a wider audience then that’s a good thing for everyone.

I hope this film is as widely viewed as it deserves to be. It’s not mine to flog but still, I would like you all to watch it if you don’t mind. Why? Because the shuttle is no more. It is the end of a hugely important era. Every one of those astronauts has stared down at the Earth and seen the Earth staring right back at them and that makes them braver than me. Although the future of space travel is currently uncertain, putting humans into space is fundamental. We explore, it’s what we do. And of course, it’s just really, really cool.




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