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Goodbye, Atlantis

The 30-year-old shuttle programme opened space up to the world. Gulu Ezekiel writes.

india Updated: Jul 24, 2011 21:54 IST

It was with mixed feelings that I watc-hed the space shuttle Atlantis make its final landing last week, marking the end of the shuttle era that began 30 years ago.

Five years before Columbia made its maiden flight into space in April 1981, my brother Jawahar and I had the honour of attending a lecture by the fourth man on the moon, Alan Bean, at Calcutta's USIS centre. Bean was part of the Apollo 12 crew that followed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin onto the moon in 1969 and was on a speaking tour to educate the public about Nasa's forthcoming space shuttle programme.

The last Apollo moon mission had been in 1972 and after that glamorous era, full of gung-ho astronauts brimming over with the 'right stuff', there was a lull in Nasa'a activities.

Skylab was still orbiting - Bean himself had been a crewmember in 1973 - but was to crash to Earth in 1979.

Nasa could not have chosen a better candidate to spread the word. Bean was smart, he was dashing and best of all, he was affable. At the end of the talk as space fans - including Jawahar and I - crowded round to get his autograph, his police bodyguard tried to push us away. But Bean would have nothing of it and was delighted when we requested him to autograph the front page report of his moon landing from The Statesman.

During his lecture Bean was at pains to explain that the shuttle was open to anyone who was qualified and turning to his audience said: "Who knows, even one of you here may ride on it one day." That was met with a loud guffaw but I still recall exchanging excited glances with my brother.

It was the moon landings that fired our enthusiasm for space travel as it did with millions around the world. Those early American astronauts (and cosmonauts from the Soviet Union) had loads of machismo and their sense of heroism and derring-do appealed to us as pre-teens brought up on the superhero exploits of Superman, Batman and Spider-Man. These were our real life flesh-and-blood superheroes.

My second encounter with an astronaut was when Mary L Cleave visited Madras in December 1987. It was just over a year after the Challenger shuttle disaster that killed seven crew members and Nasa was in the throes of a crisis. Cleave had flown on Atlantis in 1985.

The programme suffered its second tragedy with the destruction of Columbia in 2003, killing all seven on board including our very own Kalpana Chawla.

The space bug has been passed onto the next generation and Jawahar's elder son Arjav was thrilled to extend the family connection when he met Bean in 2009 during celebrations to mark the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing. Bean's face lit up when reminded about his Calcutta visit and asked Arjav to pass on his best wishes to his father.

Bean was right, back in 1976, after all. The shuttle programme really did open space up to the world. The five spacecraft flew 355 people from 16 countries on 135 missions. It was also responsible for assembling the International Space Station and helped in numerous scientific missions, most notably the magnificent Hubble telescope.

But then the craft only flew in near-earth orbit. For two boys growing up in Durgapur and Calcutta in the 1960s and 70s, nothing has ever matched the romanticism and heroism of those early manned moon missions.

Gulu Ezekiel is a Delhi-based author. The views expressed by the author are personal.