The final launch of the Space Shuttle program is scheduled to light up the Cape Canaveral sky in a little less than an hour and a half. I'll aim to post by that time, and then watch it live via laptop. I'm looking at footage now--a bunch of guys in faux space suits, harnesses and baseball hats working through their checklists in the White Room, an "environmentally controlled" compartment from which the astronauts enter their rocket ship. The prep crew are periodically looking up at the camera and offering grins and showing off pieces of equipment, used for the last time, for the viewers back home. It's all a victory lap, but Atlantis has to safely launch and return before such a celebration is earned. Over their shoulders one can see the exposed hatch of Atlantis, with a caution-tape-lettered arrow pointing to a latch near a tiny porthole, that says "RESCUE." Still, around the launch area, this pre-liftoff limbodance, performed by hundreds of technicians for the last 30 years, has a few deviations this morning. They stop for photo ops with their colleagues and friends, imminently a former fraternity of space professionals...
They're working to ensure the safety of the four souls as they rocket into low-Earth Final Frontier. They are Chris, Doug, Sandy and Rex. You can see their photos on the NASA site, their faces and profiles coming up like Marvel superhero dossiers, Fantastic Four style:
I was lucky enough to witness a Shuttle launch in February and posted some thoughts while they were in their landing approach.
Back to pre-lauch coverage. A comlink computer needs to be re-booted and the technician informs the Flight Controller with just a tiny, tiny note of hesitation in his description. They hold the countdown. Their computers crash just like this laptop... it's unsettling for the lay-watcher, for someone whose generational Kennedy moment came in the middle of 11th Grade English class on a January morning in 1986.
Now, the software's been re-uplinked, the countdown resumed, and then stopped for a built-in hold at T-Minus 9:00. The play-by-play is thrown to Houston's Mission Control, where a very reassuring, informed voice tells America the controllers have been at their desks since 4:30 this morning. Bet they drank their coffee. Atlantis has flown some 115 million miles to date. That's one hell of a lot of oil changes.
The Shuttle, nested in its Floridian launchpad is an elegant modern-art installation, seen in this way
Take the wider view, however, and its reality is also a bleak and lonely thing, a metaphor for some aspects of This Human Journey that we are all destined to take, indeed that we're taking right now.
This is also Atlantis, some 30 minutes from launch this morning
All we can do is hope for the best. They're professionals. No one on the planet is better at changing the Shuttle's oil, after all. And it's not a Marvel comic book. It's very, very real.
The Flight Director now polls all the departments, a flurry of acronyms and abbreiviations. One guy says, "Flight, I'd appreciate it if you'd come back to me and poll me last," like a not-quite-decided diner in a party of 12 might say to a waiter. Mere moments later, he's decided he'll have the salmon after all, and we're all agreed upon "Showing No Constraints." The complexity depth is dizzying, what leads up to a rocket launch. And yet it boils down to "Go/No Go," and of course, Alan Shepard's prayer, uttered 50 years ago from the launchpad of Freedom 7, and paraphrased here as, Oh Lord... please don't let me fuck this thing up.
Crew Orbiter Access Arm is being retracted. T-Minus Nine. All the announcers are invoking 30-year salutes and up-to-the-moment well wishes to the crew and everyone listening. What do I have to do today? Shave and then go watch my kid in his musical theatre day-camp performance of "SchoolHouse Rock, LIVE!"
Godspeed indeed to the bravest among us. We can only move forward. Thanks for reading and please remember: In the event of an existential engine failure, your closest RESCUE hatch may not be the one through which you entered.