Saturday, July 9, 2011

The end of an era and the beginning

Yesterday I watched the launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Unfortunately I didn't watch it from Florida, or even from one of the many viewing parties, but on CNN coverage on mute with closed captions in the break room at work. I have to admit, I skipped half a meeting to do it. :) I watched as the count down proceeded, when it stopped at 31 seconds, then when it continued and the orbiter slipped the surly bonds of Earth for the last time.

Unlike many pilots, I didn't grow up dreaming of flying, I didn't get bit by that bug until I flew. I grew up dreaming of space, the idea of traveling TO space didn't really appeal to me, but the idea of being IN space ... THAT was my childhood dream. And the first shuttle flight when I was 11 was the spark, I think, that made me think space was actually possible.

I distinctly remember the launch of Columbia in 1981. I avidly read and watched everything I could find about that space craft. I did countless "science projects" on the shuttle and the shuttle program. I studied the specs for the orbiters, did papers on their capabilities and made models of them.

I was 12 in 1982 when Columbia had to divert and land at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. My dad woke us up at 3AM and we drove from Albuquerque to White Sands to view the shuttle as it sat there. We were kept what seemed like 5000 feet away from it. There was no "close up viewing" but it was worth every minute just to SEE the shuttle in person.

I remember the exactly what I was doing when Challenger died. I was 16 and sitting in my high school math class and someone interrupted the class to tell everyone about the disaster. I remember later that day going to my little hang out spot on campus, called "The Bridge", with my friends and we talked about our fear that space exploration would end because of the disaster. We hoped the human spirit would push out to space in spite of the cost.

I went to college in Houston, TX at the University of Houston to study Space Architecture. I wanted to design space stations. My admissions essay was about how I thought it was so important for humans to go to space in order to unite the human race and relieve the pressures on the Earth. I didn't finish my degree.. my dream of being involved personally in space travel died. But I never stopped dreaming of space and watching the shuttle launches and what they did.

When I was 20 I worked at a job testing smoke stacks for emissions. I was testing the emissions from the backup generators for the Goldstone Complex in the middle of the Mojave desert. 123 degrees in the shade and I was on a hot tar roof. The particular generators I was testing were near the Mars dish. This dish was used for communicating with the Hubble telescope. We had to leave the complex for a couple hours one day.. the shuttle was up by the Hubble, "fixing its lenses".

I remember when Columbia burned up over Texas in 2003, shortly after passing over California. I cried that day. That particular flight still brings tears to my eyes. Maybe because the pain is fresh or maybe because they were so close to home. I don't know why and, frankly, it doesn't matter why.

So as I watched Atlantis rocket into space for the last time.. I cried a bit. I'm sad the shuttle program is done. When I was 11 and the first shuttle launched I never thought I would see the last shuttle launch. When you are 11 you never think of endings.. only of beginnings. I'm sad the US Government no longer has the inspiration to pursue the dream directly any more. I wonder what will become of NASA.

I'm glad there are people like Burt Rutan and Richard Branson and all of the dreamers and entrepreneurs who put their money, time and lives on the line to reach for space for us all. I'm happy there is an actual Space Port being built in New Mexico, just off the same highway my dad and I drove down when I was 12 to see the space shuttle sit on the desert floor.

I never dreamed of flying when I was young. I dreamed of space. Maybe my reach exceeded my grasp a bit there :) On the other hand, when I think of space, of the shuttle, of humans achieving that amazing dream, the feeling that grips my heart is very similar to what I feel when I fly a small plane over the mountains and valleys of California. So as I follow the shuttle on her last mission and watch the end of an era unfold.. I prepare for the beginning of a new era for me, my own era of flight. I study and practice and get ready for that all important check ride that will enable me to slip the surly bonds of Earth on wings of metal powered by avgas and held aloft by wind.

Good luck, Atlantis as you perform your final mission. Safe flight, blue skies and soft landing to you on your return. Here's to the end of an era and the beginning of my own.

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