I remember my first shuttle launch. I was 7 years old, in 1st grade, October. I remember everyone being jealous that I got to take a week off school to go to Florida. I remember staying in a condo at Coco Beach, just about 30 minutes from Cape Canaveral, where the shuttle launches from. I remember getting up before dawn and piling in my family’s blue Ford van to head to the launch site. I remember my brother and I falling asleep in the backseat and then waking up as we parked in the swamp area around the viewing space. We set up lawn chairs and got out our cooler of refreshments. My dad walked with us to the concession stand where we bought t-shirts and tiny shuttle replicas and ice cream. We waited for hours. We avoided the “Beware of Alligator” signs (the place where the public watches shuttle launches is also a nature reserve).
And then they called the launch. Bad weather was headed our way, so they’d try again in a few days.
I remember being sad, but knowing I was heading back to a condo on the ocean helped a bit. We spent the next few days playing in the surf and collecting sea shells. Then, once again, we headed back to the Cape, to see what we could see.
The strangest part of a shuttle launch is that you see it before you hear it. The little light climbs higher and higher, and then the rumbling begins. It starts out quiet, and before you know it your hands are clapped over your ears and the ground trembles beneath your feet. If there was ever anything that deserved the descriptor, awesome, this is it.
I was lucky enough to see every shuttle vehicle launch in my lifetime (save Challenger, which was destroyed before my dad’s grant with NASA began). The first one was Atlantis, then Discovery, Columbia, and Endeavour. I was there for Endeavour’s first flight. Today it began its final ascent.
I know many people are talking about the negatives of the shuttle program right now. What it was meant to do, what it didn’t accomplish…but the strides that we have made in terms of human spaceflight, experiments, the delivery of so many important pieces of equipment to outer space (Hubble telescope, International Space Station, numerous probes to other planets in our solar system) far outweigh the negatives in my mind.
Plus, we as a species are creatures that long for discovery and adventure. “Space, the final frontier…” yes, dorky, I know. But true. I hope with all of my heart that we continue manned space flight in a way that is productive and intelligent, and not just let politicians decide NASA’s fate. Almost every great mistake in NASA’s history can be traced back to bad government pressure to make it cheaper, faster, more popular (Columbia, Challenger, Apollo 1 and Apollo 13 to name a few), and going down that path again will only lead to more disasters.
Here’s to the future, full of science, discovery, knowledge and awe…Godspeed, Endeavour.