The End of an Era

18 Apr

An official photo from NASA HQ.

Yesterday at 10am, this city stood still. People in suits poured from buildings, mingling with tourists who flock to the Capital year-round in patriotic attire. Photographers had impressive equipment perched on tripods pointed at the White House, framing what they hoped would be the perfect shot. Everyone looked to the heavens in anticipation.

And then she appeared – the Space Shuttle Discovery strapped to the top of a modified 747, cruising over the National Mall in what is normally restricted airspace. The crowd erupted in cheers.

As I stood watched Discovery take her final victory lap, I had goosebumps. I turned to the White House cop standing next to me and said, “It looks like they’re having a blast,” referring to the pilot who I assume had a shit-eating grin on his face as he did THREE fly-bys that required sign-off from the FAA, Homeland Security and the Secret Service. “Hell,” he responded, “I’m having a blast!”

Just taking the sight at face value – a friggin’ Space Shuttle strapped to an airplane – is jaw-dropping in a physics-defying kind of way. But it was more than that. It was one of those moments when you realize you’re witnessing history, that – just as I remember where I was when I learned the Challenger blew up (Mrs. Lockery’s sixth grade writing class); I will now never forget the day the Shuttle program ended. Because I saw it with my own two eyes.

In middle school, I was a member of the Young Astronauts Club. It used the sex appeal of space to interest kids in math and science, with the unstated promise that if you excelled in both, you just might get to ride in a Space Shuttle some day. With the retirement of the Shuttle, I wonder: what will fuel this generation’s curiosity?

As I walked back to my office, I couldn’t help but smile. And I noticed that everyone else I passed was also smiling. I suppose you can’t help but share a feeling of awe and pride and hope when you’ve just seen something that left our atmosphere 39 times receive a well-deserved salute.

Last night over dinner, Alan and I discussed it. I told him I overheard an intelligent-looking guy on his phone right after the fly-by, saying, “I need you to explain the physics to me. How can an airplane take off with a Space Shuttle on top of it? How does it not flip over when it is in the air?”

We laughed, then Alan said, “Just think. I don’t care how scary a flight is now… you can always reassure yourself by saying, ‘At least we don’t have a Space Shuttle strapped to the roof.'”

I pictured the first pilot who was told he’d be flying a 747 with, oh, um, a SHUTTLE attached to the top. “You want me to do WHAT?” I can imagine him asking, incredulously.

“Don’t worry,” the engineers would’ve said. “Just think of it as having an extra set of wings.”

Then, once he floored it down the runway, they would’ve looked nervously at each other and said, “I can’t believe we talked him into that. Here’s hoping it actually works!”

14 Responses to “The End of an Era”

  1. The Byronic Man April 18, 2012 at 8:33 am #

    It’s funny, when the shuttle program began it seemed like that was it – the doors to space travel had been thrown open.

    • pithypants April 18, 2012 at 6:34 pm #

      Can you imagine Kennedy returning from the grave, eager to see the progress that we made?

  2. Dorkahontas April 18, 2012 at 9:08 am #

    I’m so glad you got to see that. I’ve seen it twice, but never in such an awesome setting, let alone the circumstances.

    • pithypants April 18, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

      So you’re saying you didn’t see it out joy-riding?

  3. Bill Chance April 18, 2012 at 10:49 am #

    The news reminded me of when I saw the shuttle on top of the 747 over thirty years ago, right before the first flight, out in the Utah desert.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • pithypants April 18, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

      I’d imagine that seeing a shuttle strapped to a 747 before we’d even had a chance to become acquainted with it (her?) would’ve prompted a serious double-take.

  4. Karen in East Texas April 18, 2012 at 11:45 am #

    I’m happy to hear that the Discovery was so honored. We will miss our space program here in Texas and especially in Houston; and are sad that we were not allowed to keep a shuttle.

    • pithypants April 18, 2012 at 6:31 pm #

      I toured the Johnson Space Center about ten years ago and found it fascinating. It doesn’t seem right that you don’t get to hang onto one of the Shuttles, but maybe if they’re here in a population-dense area where more people get exposed to them, we’ll see more funding for NASA? Just trying to be optimistic.

      • Karen in East Texas April 19, 2012 at 11:47 am #

        I’m with you on the optimism. I loved going to visit the Johnson Space Center. My Aunt who lives in that area is actually friends with a Rocket Scientist’s family. The few times I was around them was full of fabulous conversations.

  5. thesinglecell April 18, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

    “I can’t believe we talked him into that. Here’s hoping it actually works!” Pretty much the exact same thing NASA’s scientists must have thought when we first put astronauts into space. God bless those brave souls. So many of our generation’s historical touchstones have come in the form of space flight, whether it be the triumphs of Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavor or the tragedy of Challenger and Columbia; the mindblowing new understandings from Hubble or the extraordinary-made-ordinary on the International Space Station. I hate that we’ve given up our shuttles. When I saw Discovery, scarred and worn, come through that airspace, it was bittersweet. This is a world sorely in need of inspiration. Cost-cutting is important, and practicality is, too, but I hope we see another day when America’s best and brightest reach for the stars.

    • pithypants April 18, 2012 at 6:28 pm #

      I agree. Alan and I were talking about it and it feels like we’ve said, “All Right. Russia? China? India? All you! We’ll sit this one out. We’re not curious any more.”

  6. dribblingpensioner April 18, 2012 at 2:13 pm #

    It is a beautiful photo.

  7. skippingstones April 22, 2012 at 9:09 am #

    So sad…wonderful and beautiful and sad.

  8. cassiebehle April 23, 2012 at 3:59 pm #

    That’s awesome – glad you could be there to witness such a momentous occasion! The biggest upcoming event we have here in Nebraska is Applejacks Days. And Chicken Days. And Duncan Ribfest. Yup, it’s gonna be a busy summer, alright! 🙂

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