Sunday, July 24, 2011

Dreams of Fading Contrails

Three days ago something I care a great deal for died. With the landing of space shuttle Atlantis on July 21st, 2011 to close out STS-135, America’s manned-space program is officially dead, or at least in a deep coma that could last for years and years.
Space is now something in our past and maybe a hope for the future, but right now…right now, we are in limbo. We don’t have a manned-space flight program anymore, and that is truly sad. And humanity is the worse for it.
STS-135, the official designation of Atlantis’s final mission began with a spectacular launch on July 8th, 2011. I know, because I was there. I was there to see the death of something that I love.
Before we get to the launch, though, a little history lesson. Humans were last on the moon December 14th, 1972. I would have my first birthday 16 days later. I’m just a bit too young to have experienced any of the wonder and excitement of the Apollo program except as history. So, when the shuttle program started with Columbia’s launch on April 12th, 1981, I got to experience what I imagine people must have felt for Apollo. For me, it never really ended. I vaguely remember Columbia’s first launch, but I do remember desperately wanting to see a shuttle launch. To a kid in rural Arkansas, the space shuttle was more than a machine, it was made of hopes and dreams.
Life, of course, has a habit of getting in the way. I got older, got married, got a job, and had kids, but I’d never taken the time to actually go see a shuttle launch. The shuttle program, of course, kept going, even in the face of Challenger and Columbia.
I don’t think I will ever forget where I was when I found out about Challenger. I was in the 8th grade in a room that doesn't exist anymore in a building that doesn't exist anymore. When the announcement came over the intercom, it hurt. Shuttle launches had become routine, so class was no longer interrupted to watch them, so I didn't get see what happened until hours later. Columbia, I remember hearing about it as it was happening. I was home on a Saturday with the family, it hurt, too.
Even these two tragedies couldn’t stop the shuttle program. It kept on going, keeping the dream of space alive…even if the shuttle never got more than an 8-minute burn from the Earth, we were still a spacefaring species.
Months and months ago, it was announced that the space shuttle program was ending, and I took notice. Very soon, I would no longer have a chance to see a launch of one of the beautiful shuttles in person, so I started planning. It was simply impossible for me to get away with Stacy, Mike, and Alex to see the launch of STS-134, Endeavor’s final mission, so I was left with only one last chance, STS-135, the final launch of Atlantis and the final mission of the space program.
So on July 5th, I gathered up the family, and we drove 20 hours so that I could witness the death of something I love.
Kennedy Space Center is an absolutely amazing place. The passion of the people for not just the shuttle program, but for space is palpable, you can feel it radiating from everyone who lives and works there. It’s infectious, too. I certainly feel a renewed passion for space, and I believe that that same passion has been kindled in my sons. But, there was a sadness there, too…a disappointment in the ending of the shuttle program without a successor already on-line.
NASA has always been a political football, and the current political climate and budget situation have simply taken their toll, which is sad. I believe that I read that NASA’s annual budget is now 1 billion less than what is been spent annually on air conditioning for the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Two wars and a financial meltdown that have only served to enrich the super-rich in this country have crippled NASA.
Doesn’t anybody dream about the future anymore? I’m beginning to wonder.  Americans don’t seem to care about dreams anymore, unless they’re dreams of profit, and space isn’t about profit. It never has been.
Space is about the power of imagination, dreams, and ingenuity. It's about daring impossible things and succeeding.
And, it’s dangerous. Never forget that.
Fourteen human beings gave their lives during the shuttle program. Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, and Judith Resnik died on mission STS-51-L in Challenger. And, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Rick Husband, Kalpana Chawla, and William McCool died on mission STS-107 in Columbia. Yes, it is very dangerous, but it is worth doing.
Humanity is supposed to be out there learning about the universe that we live in. Robotic exploration has its place, but robots simply have no sense of grandeur and lack the poetry necessary to describe gazing out over a Martian valley. They can't describe what it feels like to see Earthrise from the surface of the moon. Only humans can do that, and right now humans don’t even have the opportunity.
Alex, Will, and Mike just after launch
On July 8th, I stood at Banana Creek watching a countdown clock. Atlantis only had a 20% chance of launch that day, but I had a feeling. As I stood there outside the Apollo / Saturn V Center watching that countdown clock, I couldn’t help but have a big stupid grin on my face. I was 3.4 miles from the launch gantry (3 miles is the minimum distance) with a truly awe-inspiring view that encompassed launch pad 39A and the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). I was still grinning like an idiot as Atlantis lifted off and arced into the clouds riding two bright stars. It was truly beautiful. But a launch is not just seen, it is heard, and more importantly, it is felt. The sound produced as the twin SRBs fire is amazing and reverberates through your body even at 3.4 miles away. It really does need to be experienced in person, and I do realize just how lucky I was to be there with Stacy, Mike, and Alex to experience it.
Sixteen days ago I witnessed the final launch of the space shuttle program, the death of manned-space flight and something that I truly love. Its death only increased my passion for space. But, more importantly, it reminded me just how powerful and necessary dreams are. I hope it showed my sons that no dreams are too big or too impossible. And, I sincerely hope that space isn't relegated to just a dream for very long.

1 comment:

Greg said...

Will, you gonna trust Soyuz NOW to make the exchanges? As my Polish grandfather used to say, "G-damn Russkis!" More to the point, there's the good old American self-reliance that is threatened by this defection from the program.