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When I was born, manned space flights by American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts were already an established part of reality. Even though he'd just begun to fly less than 70 years before, man had been to the moon.
My father had worked for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California doing public relations work. Other members of my extended family were involved in other work for JPL. I grew up in South Pasadena, a stone's throw from JPL, and would get to sift through press packets containing the latest color images of various planets and moons in the solar system and reading up on the latest discoveries and the unmanned equipment that was gathering the information.
Growing up immersed in Disney magic fed my interest in space exploration. Walt had set the tone for the Disney tradition of highlighting space exploration as a recurring theme, coupled with an optimistic view of the future. Disney's "Man in Space" television programming helped bolster public support of space exploration. While "The Black Hole" and other Disney films involving space travel may not have made a huge cultural impact, theme park attractions such as Flight to the Moon and later Mission to Mars presented a quasi-scientific look at what public space travel could be like, and Space Mountain later romanticized the notion, appropriating it to theme an indoor roller coaster.
Among my favorite experiences at EPCOT Center were the climactic moment of Spaceship Earth and the space colony in Horizons, where space exploration and colonization were presented as significant part of our future. The dramatic music and staging reinforced the feeling of wonder and excitement.
It wasn't just Disney looking to the stars, either. My generation was also steeped in the ubiquitous "Star Wars" universe, including Star Tours (which, despite being set "long, long ago" portrayed life in space as routine with a kind of futurism); "Battlestar Galactica"; and, of course, the series of television shows and theatrical films that gave us James Talbot Kirk - "Star Trek".
To my generation, it was a given that space travel was going to be routine someday.
The world seemed to have taken another leap forward when the space shuttle Columbia made its debut flight in the early 1980s. Unlike the rockets that would segment and end up with a relatively small capsule returning three astronauts to Earth via ocean splashdown, the new space shuttles would launch with a pair of booster rockets and a giant external fuel tank, then detach and launch into outer space, carrying seven crew members and significant payloads. After working for days or weeks, the crew of the shuttle could then fly the shuttle, intact, back to Earth in an airplane-style landing in California or Florida. After some tending to, that very same shuttle would be back in space a few months later.
I remember being gathered in the school auditorium to watch the debut flight of the Columbia space shuttle. It was an awesome moment to countdown with mission control and witness ignition and liftoff, followed by the shuttle and the astronauts within soaring into the heavens.
Landings were also events. Any time a space shuttle landed in California, a telltale sonic boom would be heard and felt throughout southern California. Soon, the Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis space shuttles joined the Columbia in a rotating schedule of service. Footage of the launches was used in the "American Journeys" CircleVision 360 film, the OMNIMAX projection in Horizons, and the Universe of Energy.
So many missions came and went over the next few years that the launches and landings met with generally declining interest among the general public, save for the occasional "noteworthy" missions, such as when a teacher was going to be among the crew.
One day, my teacher wheeled in a television as our class session convened. Something was going on. The Challenger had exploded not long after lift-off. We watched the news coverage as it repeated the video of the disastrous event and speculated about emergency landing sites in Spain, as if there was some hope that the shuttle had crossed the Atlantic.
But the reality was that the world had just seen NASA's first in-flight fatal disaster. It was a harsh reminder that space travel was not routine. It was still new and dangerous. Thirty years after Walt's program had explained how space travel would be possible, it was still a frontier that was being pioneered by brave souls backed by complicated engineering.
It took a couple of years, intense investigation, and lots of work, but space shuttle flights resumed. The Challenger was replaced with the Endeavor. The demise of the Challenger, however, would be forever burned in the minds of generations.
During this time, Walt Disney Imagineering worked on Space Center Houston for the Johnson Space Center, something I rarely hear mentioned in Disney circles.
The crumbling of the Iron Curtain coupled with financial realities brought about cooperation between the U.S.A. and Russia in space exploration. The International Space Station was one result.
"Apollo 13" reminded moviegoers of a near-disaster in NASA's past. Fictional films like "Deep Impact" and Disney's "Armageddon" portrayed the space shuttles as potential world-savers in far-out, emergency missions. In reality, the general public seemed to think of the space program, particularly the shuttles, as routine once again. The persistent memory of the Challenger became a dull one. Space "tourism" became a reality for wealthy people who would meet the demands of the Russians.
Disney had closed Horizons, a general look at the future, and started work to replace it with the specific Mission: Space.