As I write this, it’s Friday afternoon. My office shut down for an hour today, just so everyone could go up to the roof and watch the last flight of the Space Shuttle program.
That statement is actually somewhat inaccurate. This last “shuttle flight” by the Endeavor never went into space, and in fact wasn’t even done under its own power, it was secured to its 747 jumbo jet transport, chauffered leisurely from Edwards Air Force Base to a landing at LAX. Shuttled, if you will.
I guess that’s one reason why I sat on my ass and stayed in the office while everyone else left to go watch the skies for the flyover. There was nothing preventing me from joining them, from having this experience, except that I really, really didn’t feel like doing so.
Approximately 30 years ago, I remember a young Clint spending the night at a friend’s house, then getting up well before dawn so we could be driven out to Edwards in time to watch the Space Shuttle Columbia land. That was magical to me. I watched that sucker appear out of the cloudless desert sky, heralded by the rolling, rumbling crackle of a sonic boom, and it put its landing gear down and hit the runway just like any other plane might have… but just an hour beforehand, that plane had been in space. That thought was inexpressibly cool to a young nerd boy.
Now that I poke around the Internet a bit, I think this was actually the very first successful spaceflight and landing of the shuttle program. April 14th, 1981 would have been the landing time, making me seven years old. Sounds about right. This was a new era and I was excited, waving my little American flag and cheering it on. Space Shuttles were freakin’ cool.
Had it been the Columbia on this flyby, maybe I would have gone to the roof. That was the thing about the Shuttles, they were meant to be reused, not disposable like the rocket modules that came before. You could actually grow an attachment to them. But it wasn’t Columbia. We lost Columbia nine years ago, along with her crew at the time, and the only positive thing you might say about that is that although older than Challenger, she outlived Challenger by 17 years.
But there’s nothing really positive to say, is there? Just like there was nothing to take the sting out of that 1986 morning when the hope and promise of the new era exploded before the horrified eyes of the world, including all us schoolkids watching because for the first time ever, a civilian, a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, was part of the crew. By that time I was twelve, but I still would hardly have called myself jaded. I didn’t really know how to deal with it. I suspect that put me in the company of a lot of Americans, since up until that point deaths in the space program had occurred during training or practice, and were given a much lower profile. This? There was no way to spin this, or downplay it, or cover it up. The whole program went on hold and a permanent shroud was laid over what was once so promising.
So you could call those reasons, as well, I suppose. On the one hand, I was there almost at the beginning (barring the Cape Canaveral launch) and saw the real deal in action. Compared to that, watching Endeavor strapped to the back of a 747 is something I imagined would be akin to watching a movie star who danced memorably in his heyday making a final appearance with someone else having to help him up the stairs to the stage.
And then on the other hand, there’s the tragedy. Not just of irreplaceable lives and irreplaceable machines, but that in the end it all seems like it was for nothing. In 2012 the dream of manned spaceflight is all but dead, and who knows if it will ever come again?
I didn’t go to see the Endeavor. Perhaps one day I may pay my respects to it at the museum which will be its final resting place, placing a lily on the grave of the shuttle program, and that flag-waving seven year old’s wide-eyed wonder.
But not today.