Here’s my two cents on today’s shuttle launch and the end of an era.
I arrived at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center this morning at 7:00, which is when I typically start my work day. Goddard has these electronic billboards at the gates, and I happily noted that the billboard showed a picture of the shuttle stack and said “L – 0″—indicating zero days ’til launch. This was it. I smiled as I walked across the building 21 parking lot into the lab.
When I turned on NASA TV on the big screen in our lab, the closeout crew was busy securing the astronauts in place on Atlantis’ flight deck. The commentary was by a member of a previous closeout crew, who gave the play-by-play of everything that way going on, and really emphasized the huge amount of training that these closeout crews need to go through in order to safely perform the final preparations to send a crew of seven (or in this case, four) astronauts into space. This is their life and their livelihood, and the end of the shuttle program is the end of a major chapter in all of their lives.
Today was not a day for politics though. One by one as people trickled into the lab this morning, they stopped for a moment and looked at the screen, taking in the sight. This was the last time that a space shuttle would sit on the launchpad. One coworker just said, “It’s really beautiful.” Later on I was struck by the pure beauty of it too, and couldn’t help but blurt out, “That sure is a pretty spaceship.” I’m always quick to assert that even after 30 years this is the most advanced machine that human beings have ever built, with countless ingenious engineering innovations and millions of moving parts, and I take pride in all that the space shuttles have accomplished. But this morning all I could think was “that is a beautiful spaceship.”
And I think that was the overall feeling in the lab as the launch time got closer and everyone crowded around. We’re all scientists and engineers, so there was the usual technical banter, but then someone would say, “just look at that,” and we’d be quiet for a moment, because this was the last time we’d see it.
The launch itself was flawless, and spectacular as ever. Just as it was breaking the sound barrier, Atlantis punched through a bank of clouds, blasting a shockwave out in all directions and forming a cloud of moisture in the bow shock at the front of the spacecraft. And from the cameras on the shuttle stack, you could watch the shadow of the spacecraft as it roared away from Earth. I really hope you all got a chance to see it live, but here’s the replay:
People will say a lot of things about the shuttle program. It has been criticized, taken for granted, misunderstood, and downright ignored by Americans for decades. The shuttle is the only American craft capable of launching humans into space that my generation has ever known, and there are no clear plans for a successor.
Carl Sagan always used to say that humans are a nomadic species, that the need to explore, to forever push the frontier outward is a core aspect of our identity. Exploration drives us, it requires us to constantly develop new ways to use our brains, but most importantly it gives us valuable perspective on the places we call home.
Last summer I got a chance to speak with astronaut John Grunsfeld. John is an astrophysicist so I asked him what the stars look like from above Earth’s atmosphere. His answer made me realize what human exploration of space is really about. He said that even though the stars and the planets were spectacular, they paled in comparison to the Earth. Nothing is as beautiful as the Earth, and every chance you get while you are in space, you want to look at that big blue planet, your home.
Accounts by Apollo astronauts, the only humans to ever leave low Earth orbit, are preoccupied with that brilliant blue sphere. Almost every one of them talks about the sensation of watching the Earth shrink as the S-IV-B engine fired and they raced towards the moon. And several of them talk about straining to find the Earth overhead as they were walking on the Moon.
Today the shuttle left Earth for the last time. On the one hand, the program is 30 years old. I wouldn’t feel safe in a car that’s 30 years old, much less a spaceship. Without a doubt this is a timely conclusion to a great era of space exploration. On the other hand, I’m sad to see it go. I really believe that the space shuttle is one of the most beautiful things that humankind has ever created, and it is a symbol of our country and our species and of our persistent desire to push beyond the confines of our home planet. We need to think very seriously about how we will keep the dream of exploration alive in years and generations to come, but for today, let’s just reflect on the beauty of this, the most advanced machine we have ever built.