With Atlantis safely home, this Nature video combines footage from all 135 space shuttle missions to create one epic journey
“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”
Surely nothing better embodies Robert Browning’s sentiment than space exploration. Today, an era of human spaceflight came to a close, with wheelstop of STS-135, the final space shuttle mission.
Following the success of Apollo’s six journeys to the moon, Nasa’s continued exploration of space was to be in a reusable craft that would transport people and kit from Earth, into orbit and back. The Space Transportation System was the official name of the five space shuttles, which clocked up more than half a billion miles ferrying back and forth. The achievements are too many and too impressive to list, but the two most striking are the delivery, repair and maintenance of the Hubble Space Telescope, and the building of the International Space Station.
About 18 months ago, we at Nature started to think about the shuttle’s retirement. Others will and have written about the scientific legacy of this grandstanding space programme, but I just wanted to make something beautiful. I figured that as each flight followed a very distinct path (countdown, launch, roll, pitch, yaw, jettison boosters etc.), we could show one journey, cut from every single mission, in order…..
Nasa, an organisation that has put men on the moon, kept their video archive on VHS. One of my editors described this as “humankind’s greatest achievement recorded on the world’s lousiest format”. So the first job was to digitise and sift through more than a hundred hour-long videotapes.
I knew that I wanted this to be a music video, and that the soundtrack should be soaring, anthemic and unapologetically triumphalist. Twitter led me to the Sheffield band 65daysofstatic, whose rousing, uplifting energy embodies my sentiments perfectly in two different songs. Two brilliant editors, Nature’s Charlotte Stoddart, and the band’s video producer Dave Holloway took those songs, and all that shonky footage, and made it better than I ever could have imagined. Each space shuttle mission is there, in chronological order (note: the mission numbering does not follow, for various reasons).
This is a deeply personal film. Those spaceships have been in my life since as long as I can remember, and I think many feel that shared ownership. I can’t say I recall the very first mission, STS-1 in 1981, but my Dad and I watched Challenger fall from the sky live in 1986. The media became bored with the space shuttle as the missions became more and more routine, which is sad, because each one was a marvel. That astronauts could sit on top of such explosives and for that explosion to be controlled enough to escape Earth’s bonds is truly a feat of design engineering.
And then, in early 2003, Columbia disintegrated on reentry, all crew lost. That mission was entirely dedicated to scientific research. I was a science journalist by this point and covered the story. But for the second time, the STS program continued. Now, for the first time in 50 years, the future of human spaceflight is unknown.
And so we say goodbye to this glorious workhorse: 135 missions, 21,000 orbits; 355 men and women flew up, 342 returned to Earth. What a ride it’s been: this is my love letter to the space shuttle.
PS. The most famous heckle in music history is probably the cry of “JUDAS!” at the Manchester Free Trade hall in 1966. Bob Dylan replied with a typically cryptic “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.” But the next thing he said was off-mic. He turned to the band and said defiantly “Play this one fucking loud!” Play this video full screen, hi-def and heed Dylan’s advice.