Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Reaching Out and Returning...

Rocketry has fascinated me, and I have always felt a neonatal connection--having emerged into the world as Neil, Buzz and Michael were on their way back from the Moon in Apollo 11's Command Module, Columbia--to astronauts and the space program. These formerly nonplussed test pilots splashed down in the Pacific--my second day of life--and were reborn as living legends, whisked off to quarantine, like alien infants headed to a NASA incubator for a few weeks.

As a kid, my friends grooved on Evel Kenieval toy motorcycles and cars, but my favorite toy was a Steve Austin rocket that opened up into an operating table, where one Could Rebuild Him--just like Oscar Goldman intoned in the most iconic opening sequences in 70s television. Now that I think about it, that life-saving, $6 million-dollar-man-creating operation, which grafted bionics into Steve's arm, his eye, his legs, was the fictional reincarnation--and a more perfect outcome--of Apollo I's Gus, Roger and Ed, who died in the flames of a pre-flight test in which the engineers hadn't surmised one might need to open a space hatch quickly.

Despite the Bionic Man's great fortune, there are no actual fender-benders when launchpads are involved. In my 17th year, when my classmates and I had returned from lunch for the second half of English, our notoriously irreverent and subversive teacher delivered the somber news that Challenger had exploded shortly after liftoff--my generation's Kennedy moment, in which we'll never forget our whereabouts when we heard. They traced the loss of those seven souls to a number of factors, the most significant of which were temperature-sensitive 37-foot rubber O-rings, miniatures of which were worn on the wrists of million American teenagers, in the style of Madonna. This writer was one of them. In that tragedy, we lost seven: Ellison, Michael, Dick, Gregory, Ron, Judith, and of course Christa, a teacher-astronaut from Concord, New Hampshire, who beat out hundred of applicants to represent the non-space faring public.

Over time, the news of Shuttle launches--and astro-scientists populating a chunky, burgeoning space station--once again became part of our cultural white noise, as they had before Challenger's demise. We had other things to distract us: the Internet, a youthful Kennedy-esque president, Ivy-League graduates making a killing on tech start-ups that did nothing but hemmorage their backers' millions...

So by the one-hundred-and-seventh Shuttle launch, on a cold January morning of 2003, I imagine no one other than die-hard NASA enthusiasts and the crew's loved ones followed Columbia's mission with much interest. Columbia was the oldest of the fleet, and the first to launch into low-earth orbit, during STS-1 on April 12, 1981. She had 27 safe launch-and-landings under her fuselage. Sadly--and like the Challenger, involving a seemingly innocuous part of Shuttle design--a chunk of insulating spray foam broke from the external fuel tank as Columbia rocketed past the "Throttle up" sequence, about 81 seconds into its flight, blowing a hole in the orbiter's left wing.

Fifteen days later, mission goals met, as Columbia streaked homeward, the hellish temperatures generated by re-entry seeped into that wing and ate up the orbiter, only 16 minutes from a safe landing at the Kennedy Space Center. She broke up over the Southwestern United States, killing the crew and destroying their craft. Again, seven souls were lost, including Rick, Michael, Willie, Dave, Kalparia, Laurel and Ilan.

Since then, an additional 22 shuttle missions have safely launched and returned, and NASA has wound down the program, amassing trillions of mothballs in big-ass closets, for our surviving three snub-nosed rocketplanes.

Which brings us to today, and the now: STS-133, the final mission of the shuttle Discovey, is in its final minutes. As I type this, the orbiter is about to re-enter Earth's atmosphere at a zippy 17,000 miles per hour. They're 400,000 feet up perking the shuttle's nose, in anticipation of shunting off 3,000 degrees of atmospheric friction. The crew on this mission includes Steve L., Eric, Alvin, Mike, Steve B. and Nicole.

What makes this mission special for myself is that my son and my mother and I were lucky enough to travel to Titusville, Fla. on February 24th, and watch them blast off from Cape Canaveral. It was stunning, even from a few miles away. Discovery, a white tube with a flaming dragon's tail, flew an ever-swifter arc over the Atlantic. The roar of the solid rocket boosters enveloped all of us, gathered in Sand Point Park, spectator/picnic-goers. Red, white and blue on a green lawn. Sunhats. Lawnchairs.

About a minute into the launch, my stomach tightened, for this was the time we lost Challenger, but Discovery smoothly powered its way up and up. As it became a tiny dot, I was pretty sure I saw the separation of the two solid rocket boosters. A perfect launch, executed apparently with only seconds to spare due to a last-second hold from one of the launch-control teams.

Just a few minutes later, the smoky residue began to dissipate, turning memory into cloud. Even humankind's most powerful machines are but fleeting against the wind.

I told myself I'd monitor this mission more than any other--and I've checked in on the Internet, watching video of their two space walks. Mission Specialists Al and Steve B. suited up twice. Here's a shot of one guy using a drillgun to fasten something to the hull of the International Space Station. A drillgun! More or less just like a DeWalt or Makita I would use backstage in a theatre, except, you know, in space!

Know what else? The guy was a last-second replacement when another guy wrecked his bike. Life works like that, even for astronauts. They are like us, except that they are more perfect versions of us. Or perhaps more apt, they have demonstrated an elastic tenacity and believed in themselves and their goals. Their talents--and great fortune--have delivered them to this moment--returning to the present--as they are now 19 minutes from touchdown, slowed to a more sedate 14,000 mph, rolling Discovery's wings slowly from right to left, waving at the stars, the clouds, the commuters locked on the LIE.

I'm going to publish this post now and watch a live video stream of the landing. I like their chances. Later, I'll adorn this post with some artwork -- photos of the launch, and the mission insignias. But for now, I'm thinking just of the crew and their fallen colleagues, memorialized with a simple monument in Titusville, with plaques for the 17 of them. They were, quite simply, the best of humans.

One last thought. As Discovery's crew made their fiery ascent into low orbit that Thursday afternoon, it occurred to me that a rocket launch is a metaphor for life: burning fast and quick against awful and yet beautiful possibilities. Our lives will all burn out eventually. We all can make the best of our fuel, our motivations, our loves and our dreams. It's all we have.

Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for Endeavour, which is scheduled for a final launch on April 19, and Atlantis, set for its swan song in late June.


  1. And like the baseless fabric of this vision, the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, yea all which it inherit shall dissolve and leave not a wrack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on...

  2. July 20, 1969. My dad dragged a sleepy seven year old gal out of bed to watch something really important on television. It was right about then i decided to be an astronaut.

    Didn't quite get there, but as an engineer in the aerospace industry, i have always been inspired by the folks who got us to the moon.

    Parents took us to the Huntsville rocket center on vacation when i was maybe 12 years old, and we got to walk through a mock up of a Space Shuttle - which no one had really hear of yet, because the program was still in development.

    i remember asking the tour guide about the urinals - "Hey, where will the women astronauts go?". She had no answer.

    And watching the night launch of a shuttle, from the rooftop of a building at Patrick AFB with a friend in 2005? Sheer. Bliss.

    i'm sad that this run is over. we just really need to keep going...