5/16/11

Last Launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavor or Where is Kate Capshaw When You Need Her?

It’s just as breathtaking as it’s ever been watching the last launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavor on NBC. Just like every other shuttle launch I’ve ever watched, this moment fills me with hope and pride and some kind of Christmas morning excitement. 

The brilliant orange explosion powering the shuttle into space dampens, the rockets safely separate from the ship, and the circular white halo of light from the back of the shuttle (that now looks like a spaceship proper) undulates and sparkles as it passes through the atmosphere into the familiar blanket of black space.

As a nation, we still have one launch left to go. Yet I feel just as crushed as if this were the last one. Just as I did in Florida a few years ago when I caught one of the launches by accident on a vacation.

I remember racing to the top of my concrete hotel stairs to watch that same orange spark crawl up the sky. Knowing then, as I do now, that we’re counting down. Not to lift off, but to the true end of an era.


Like most little kids, I dreamed of becoming an astronaut one day. My inspirations were Star Trek, Star Wars and Kate Capshaw in Space Camp.

We watched Space Camp one random day in fifth grade and it just astonished me. I had never seen Capshaw as anything but the terrified Willie Scott and I had certainly never even thought to imagine being accidentally launched into space. I don't think I even knew that NASA's Space Camp existed before that movie.

So let's just say, it was a paradigm shift.

Despite my long-cultivated love of science fiction, I have also always loved science reality. The space shuttle program has brought us untold new technologies forged in the strange conditions of space as results of experiments and practical provisions invented to assist astronauts.
 
I’ve always been overenthusiastic about the very idea of space. Not just as a child either. Almost precisely one month ago today I was standing in line for the Epcot ride “Mission Space” with my best friend Lindsay. The ride is built using actual astronaut training technology, the centrifugal spinners you see parodied in “Spies Like Us” and “The Simpsons” space launch episode

Mission Space is my favorite ride at Epcot. I love every moment of the line, every visual provided, and the reverence that the environment encourages. It’s like being in a church for a space geek. Gary Sinise stars in a little informational video about the ride  teaching you how to properly board and where your seat belt is and all that mundane stuff. (You can watch the video at the end of the blog, stop watching at the 3:00 mark though or it will spoil the ride if you've never been on it before.)

True to Disney form, the entire event is wrapped in the beautiful fictional premise that you are actually about to board a shuttle mission to Mars. YOU are an astronaut. While we stood in the line watching the video, I felt a swell of patriotic pride. I rode that wave all the way to its emotional conclusion and at the end of the video when Sinise congratulated us all on completing our astronaut training, I applauded. Loud. Lindsay laughed and all the other riders looked at me in shock. I may have even said, “Yay!”

Then, after the blush of embarrassment came a wave of sadness. Though there’s still hope for private space programs such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, though there's a .05% chance that the shuttle program may someday be reinstated, though it was not necessarily our best technological option to begin with for its astronomical cost (excuse the pun) it suddenly breaks my heart when I realize…none of these kids will dream of growing up to pilot a space shuttle.

That is why they think my enthusiasm is so misplaced. To them, this is just a ride. A true slice of fiction.

Here’s the thing, I had just as much of a chance of growing up to be Richard Kiel than I did of growing up to pilot a space shuttle. If ever anyone was meant for the arts and not for the sciences…it was me. I flourished in biology classes, but I took to math the way Dracula takes to garlic. So I never really had a shot at my astronaut dream.

But if Kate Capshaw and her squad of geeky space camp students could accidentally get blasted into space, maybe I could Mr. Magoo my way into a similar accidental fate? (Yes I know, it wasn't real. But remember, I was using the hope inspired by a child's logic. A child obsessed with movies no less.)

But now, not even the poor little math-deficient dum dums like me can dream of working for NASA's Space Shuttle program. Or visiting on a day when someone falls asleep at the control panel and their coffee cup just so happens to spill on the big red cartoon “launch” button right after you’ve toured the shuttle “The Right Stuff” style and been strapped in during a demonstration.

My only hope now is that innovation will occur. That like every other time in the history of our country when we’ve been down and out, that the geeks will rise up and find a way to begin again.

Maybe NASA will take on some new form and function; maybe Branson's aforementioned private space travel will be the next great source of leaps in technology. Maybe space travel will enjoy a resurgence in popularity because of something we don’t even know about yet.

I just know that there’s one more shuttle launch left, one more beautiful orange point of light vanishing into the blue. I’m scared about what might vanish with it. Somehow, I feel like I’m the only one in the world who feels like crying right now, who wants to go door to door and lecture people on the importance of the program, or of NASA in general.

I want to walk around their house and pick things up, “See this? This ballpoint pen you’re using was invented for the space program. So was this Velcro! Put down that glass of Tang and listen to me! Oh wait, Tang came from the Space program too! And GPS and the microwave and…what? You’re calling the police? Okay, I’ll leave.”

The way a fashion maven may want to point to the discount blouse you bought yesterday and explain the way that its style trickled down from the runway designs of two years ago, that’s how responsible I feel for explaining to people why the shuttle program mattered. Matters. I hate that the past tense has already accidentally infected my space speech.

I want space travel to be a "thing" again, present in our national consciousness. A source of patriotic pride. Something we can all get excited about together. Something the public tries to understand instead of ignorantly sweeping into the “waste of money” category that so many politicians oversimplify in pandering campaign speeches.

Space is hope and invention and the best of humanity coming together to cooperate and work together.

Do you know how often that happens? Here on Earth…just about never.  

So I guess there’s nothing to do but grieve and worry and keep Googling “the privatization of space programs”.

And maybe watch Space Camp today.

Enjoy the Gary Sinise "Mission Space" training video:  


1 comment:

Jake Williams said...

I love the space program and have been dreading these last few shuttle launches. Come on Branson. We all need you. Nice Space Camp references too!