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Farewell, my space shuttle

By Leroy Chiao, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The space shuttle has given us three remarkable decades of service, says Leroy Chiao
  • The shuttle is the most amazing, accomplished and capable flying machine ever built, he says
  • Other nations tried to imitate the space shuttle, with limited or no success
  • Chiao: I have poignant memories of flying aboard the shuttle, and it is leaving us too soon

Editor's note: Leroy Chiao served as a NASA astronaut from 1990 to 2005 and flew four missions into space, including flights aboard the space shuttles Columbia, Endeavour and Discovery.

(CNN) -- When space shuttle Endeavour blasts off Monday on its final journey, I'll be thinking about the shuttle's three remarkable decades of service.

I grew up during the Cold War and the Space Race. I was raised on "Star Trek." To me, the guys in "The Right Stuff" were Mickey Mantle and the Beatles on a rocket ship.

The Apollo 11 moon landing was the biggest moment of my childhood. It made me want to reach for the stars like those real-life heroes had done. And while I was building my dreams, NASA was constructing the vehicle that would bring me to the stars.

As NASA toiled, I was working on my own version of the shuttle -- in my parents' garage, out of toilet paper tubes and balsa wood. America was intoxicated by the space program and I was an addict for the excitement, drama and promise for the future that it would deliver with every launch.

In the '60s the anticipation for the decades ahead was as boundless as the universe itself. We were young, cocky and convinced that we could conquer the limits of space. And while space travel eventually became almost commonplace for many Americans, the fire inside me for space exploration never dimmed.

On one warm July morning in 1994, my boyhood fantasy of rocketing into the heavens in a state-of-the-art NASA spacecraft was fulfilled.

Endeavour set to launch Monday
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I had achieved what all my boyhood friends only dreamed of. I was an astronaut, a space cowboy -- and the space shuttle Columbia was my steed. That ship will always hold a special place in history, as the first of the shuttles to fly into space. It will have a similar place in my heart, along with those of many of my fellow astronauts.

Despite its perceived lack of sexiness, the shuttle is the most amazing, accomplished and capable flying machine ever conceived and built. She launches into low Earth orbit carrying a crew of up to seven astronauts, and a payload capacity of more than 50,000 pounds.

After completing an orbital mission of about two weeks, she brings it all home with a soft landing on a conventional runway. The only thing missing is a baggage check and "Everybody Loves Raymond" reruns.

After a three-month processing flow (a little lube job, a waxing, and maybe getting the tires rotated), this baby is ready to do it all over again. Unparalleled in performance, the shuttle is what every astronaut has ever dreamed of having -- and the most accomplished spacecraft NASA has ever produced.

Sadly, NASA also made promises that the shuttle was unable to keep. Two-week turnarounds and inexpensive launches never materialized.

NASA didn't know what it didn't know. Nobody had created and operated a reusable, winged spacecraft like this one before.

The losses of Challenger, Columbia and their crews showed us unforeseen and sadly cataclysmic vulnerabilities. We mourned our losses and learned from these tragedies. The knowledge we gained from these painful experiences, along with all the shuttle's glorious abilities, will contribute to the design and operation of future spacecraft.

I have many vivid and poignant memories of flying aboard the shuttle. Floating in my sleep bunk just hours after my first launch, I couldn't sleep until I rotated 90 degrees to "lay on my side."

I watched shooting stars from the cabin window. I watched over my family from space when I identified Houston below me. There were our "aerobatic Olympics" in the Spacelab module. Simply watching the enormity of the Earth below me was incredible.

The shuttle also brought lifelong friendships among the many people whose lives she touched, all over the world. Astronauts and specialists from international space programs formed unlikely alliances in space that were never possible on Earth.

I myself formed deep friendships with several of my American comrades, as well as those from Japan, Europe, Canada and Russia. The shuttle was the vehicle for all of that, literally and figuratively.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But hard as they tried, nobody else ever got it right.

The development of the Soviet Buran shuttle, which flew only once and without a crew, nearly brought the Soviet program to its knees. The French Hermes and Japanese Hope spaceplane designs never lifted off of their respective drawing boards. Our soon-to-be-scuttled shuttle stands as a symbol of American ingenuity, know-how, persistence and greatness. No other vehicle past, present or currently contemplated for the future even comes close to her capability and elegant beauty.

On April 12 of this year, the space shuttle celebrated her 30th birthday. The last shuttle mission, flown by Atlantis, is scheduled for July.

Space shuttle, you left us far too soon. You'll never be grounded in the hearts of all of us who loved you.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Leroy Chiao.

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