On Friday, July 8th, the world watched the final launch of America’s Space Transportation System, affectionately known as the Space Shuttle program. The shuttle, Atlantis, STS-135, lifted into the heavens bringing an end to America’s only manned reusable space transport.
I still remember visiting my grandfather’s house on February 18, 1977 and watching the first Shuttle Enterprise land at Edwards Air Force base after being dropped from a Boeing 747 to test its approach and landing capabilities. As a six year old, this single event changed my aspirations forever. It’s kind of funny. As a small child, my mother recorded “What I want to be when I grow up” every year in a little book with my report cards. Each year it had the same occupation: “baseball player”. However, starting in 1977 that changed to “astronaut”.
Shuttle Enterprise Separation
Shuttle Enterprise Landing
I immersed myself in math and science. Relying on an old encyclopedia set, some magazines at the library like OMNI, and specials on PBS, I absorbed everything I could about space travel. A few years later, I realized that today’s astronauts weren’t pilots, but rather scientists. If you wanted to command a shuttle mission you had to be a specialist. This kind of meshed nicely with my computer programming hobby. Surely, I could use my skills in some way to get into the space program.
My friends and classmates knew what a space buff I was, so on January 28, 1986, I thought it was a cruel joke my friends were playing on me as they each approached me to tell me the Shuttle Challenger had exploded on takeoff. I wouldn’t believe it. When I got home, I turned on the news and wept.
Later in 1986, I had fledgling idea for a program. I wanted to consolidate the information about our solar system into a graphical computer program. Up to that point, almost all programs were text based, with the exception of video games. The graphic operating system had been making its way through the industry with Xerox, then Apple Lisa, Apple Macintosh, the AtariST, and finally the Amiga. However, I had only been able to catch a glimpse of this mouse-cursor environment on television. I figured I could make my own GUI (Graphic User Interface).
At the time I had been playing around with machine language. There was no resource for learning to program a Commodore 64 in machine language in Arkansas, but I was able to find a book called, How To Program Your Atari In 6502 Machine Language. With that book and Compute! magazine, I was able to write my own machine language editor. Using an op-code sheet as a reference I set about creating my master program.
There were several limitations to overcome. The Commodore had two modes: text and graphics. In text mode, you couldn’t display graphics and in graphics mode, you couldn’t display text. Since graphics were key to my program, I would have to display text as a graphic. The only way I could see to do this was to draw out each character on graph paper and convert to an 8 bit hex value. This would have taken years. So instead, I converted the alphabet to graphics. I then wrote a word processor that would convert my text into graphics using the converted alphabet.
I don’t remember what the video resolution on the Commodore 64 was. That was a long time ago. I do remember that I wanted to allow the user to select from a list of planets using their joystick to move an arrow. Once a planet was selected, a graphic of the planet would display in a section and encyclopedic description would follow in a scrollable text box. In addition, a list of the planets moons would display. Selecting a moon would allow you to see a graphic of the moon and it’s accompanying information.
Having no graphic editor, I had to sketch all these celestial bodies by hand onto graph paper. I also had to overcome another limitation. The graphics system on a Commodore 64 would only allow two colors inside each 8 pixel by 8 pixel square. After these sketches were roughed out and then colored in, I had the task of converting each pixel into a hex code to manually input into my developing program.
Because the Commodore 64 only had very limited memory, I couldn’t cram everything into the program, so each celestial body was stored as a file object on a floppy disk. When an item was selected, the program would find the object on the disk and load it into memory. For it’s time, it was very impressive – and it was fast!
The whole project took me eight months to write.
I entered it into the school science fair and won overall. I then went to the regional science fair and once again, won overall. At the state science fair, I placed 3rd in the Computer Science division, but still – I was very proud of myself. Since that time, I don’t believe I have ever eclipsed that accomplishment nor have I ever had that dedication again. The awards were numerous:
While it may seem I have gotten off track, let me tie this all together. The award that I am most proud of is the NASA award. With it came special benefits. I was able to attend Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL with other winners from around the United States where NASA gave us a back door tour of all of their operations and supposedly introduced us to some projects unseen by the public. This is also where Space Camp was in its infancy and my heart sank to know that my parents would never be able to afford to send me.
In addition, I was given a letter by NASA which entitled me to entry to see any shuttle launch if and when the shuttle program resumed. I can’t find that letter now. I would look at it from time to time wondering if the shuttle program would ever start back up. As the years rolled by I kept telling myself, “I’ll take make kids to see a shuttle launch”. One year turned into ten and ten years turned into 20. I never was “well off” and there always seemed to be something financially pressing keeping me from arranging a trip to Cape Canaveral.
I kind of pissed away my future many, many years ago. I think back to when I was told I could be anything I want to be when I grow up. It’s true. You can. However, you have to make it happen. However, for our youth that still believe in the impossible and have unlimited imaginations, I fear that with the termination of the shuttle program that the spark that fueled so many dreams will be extinguished. I hope our country quickly finds its footing again, that our people yearn for discovery and aim for the stars.