Opinion: Space shuttle ascends in down times -- 1981-2011

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Once before, NASA and its shuttle program helped to lift America’s spirits in times of political and economic uncertainty; now both are victims of changing times and shrinking budgets.

The nation at the beginning of the shuttle program in 1981 was eerily similar to the one at the program’s end in 2011, which came Friday morning at Cape Canaveral, Fla., as the space shuttle Atlantis lifted off on the 135th and final mission, to the International Space Station.


‘Employment displayed sluggish growth as auto manufacturing failed to keep pace with other industries and homebuilding remained depressed; unemployment held close to the late 1980 levels.’

That’s the sub-headline from a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which also states that during the first half of 1981, unemployment was 7.4% after years of recession, stagflation and oil embargos.

President Reagan got to preside over the launch of the space shuttle Columbia, but it was hardly his first momentous event of the year -- or of his presidency.

On Jan. 20, he was inaugurated after a landslide victory over former President Carter, and the American hostages in Iran were released minutes afterward.

Then on March 30, only 69 days into the new administration, John Hinckley Jr. shot Reagan in the torso outside a Washington, D.C. hotel.

The 70-year-old president was released from the hospital on April 11, a red sweater concealing his bulletproof vest.

The next day, he, the nation and the world watched as Columbia lifted off, launching a new era of manned spaceflight.

Today, with a thankfully uninjured president but a persistently ailing economy, the launch of the shuttle Atlantis means the end of that era, with a loss of many jobs in both NASA -- particularly in Florida -- and in aerospace.

NASA has no manned missions planned and will rely on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Ironically, for an administration that seems eager to involve goverment in many aspects of the economy, the White House now is urging the private sector to fill the gap in low-Earth-orbit transportation.

But in 1981, it was all a brave new world, and the excitement was clear in the voice of ABC News anchor Frank Reynolds, especially when he said, ‘Go, baby, go ... oh, honey, go, fly like an eagle, go.’

Unfortunately, we can’t embed the video, so click here and enjoy (Reynolds’ exclamation comes at about the 5-minute mark).

After the jump, enjoy the live Tweeting the Ticket’s Andrew Malcolm delivered.


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Behind the scenes at the last Atlantis launch; What to watch for as the shuttle program ends

-- Kate O'Hare

Media critic Kate O’Hare is a regular Ticket contributor. She also blogs about TV at Hot Cuppa TV and is a frequent contributor at entertainment-news site Zap2it. Also follow O'Hare on Twitter @KateOH

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Photos, from top: Screenshot of Atlantis launch on ABC News (Credit: Kate O'Hare); Nancy and Ronald Reagan (

Andrew Malcolm is on assignment