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En route to the launchpad last week, the space shuttle Atlantis passed a gap in the pipes which line the rocky path. That space, I was told when I worked at the Kennedy Space Center, represents a phantom Mars launch complex, one planned but never built.  The closest we got was the emptiness.

I hated that gap.  But I liked knowing that it had at least been made.

Then again, there was once another place I didn’t like to look at, drive by, or even think about.  Sometimes I passed the hurriedly constructed, unmarked building where the shattered remains of Columbia were deposited:  the sturdy hoop of the airlock, singed bits of wire known only to the techs and God. Shoving our faces up against the stars—these feats of bending the great steel laws of gravity—can end this way sometimes.

Those techs are some of the very few permitted to see the orbiters with their bras off and their airframes showing.  Don’t tell Atlantis I said this, but upon close inspection, the shuttles are beaters.  Carbon scoring, replacement parts, tiny dings in the white tiles—these are the marks of working women, orbiters who have been there and seen that and really don’t need to appear on Dancing With the Stars in order to validate their existence.  Filmed from a distance of four miles away at the press stands on launch day, they are young and pristine.

And then they spit fire.  Back off.

Some tried to inch closer recently, when NASA ruined everybody’s Twitterday by hurling a bomb into the Moon, an experiment in search of water.  This was a great disappointment:  The debris plume wasn’t plumey enough.  The fire didn’t burn brightly enough.  Jon Gosselin’s face was in the way.  Booooooooo, Moonbomb.  Sometimes space travel is nasty, dirty-- we have the dusty suits to prove it, the lunar soil scrubbed into the white folds of the fabric.

But the Ares I-X rocket is scheduled to launch later this month, tiny toes in the ocean of lunar exploration, and then, maybe, Mars.  It’s right next to Atlantis now, there on the launchpad.  I wonder what they talk about at night.

Perhaps it’s this national gumbo of great expectations and low self-esteem, easy government money and hard choices.  In any case, I like to think of Atlantis and Ares, present and future, side by side at their gantries, speaking of a nation-- maybe bored, maybe scared, maybe weary or plain old distracted—which can’t help but hold its space program at arm’s length.

launching at:  mbe@drinktothelasses.com

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Reader Comments (7)

This is really lovely, MB. This line really struck me: "Shoving our faces up against the stars—these feats of bending the great steel laws of gravity—can end this way sometimes." Loss and purpose in one line.

October 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnne from Iowa

Thank you, Anne From Iowa The Reader! :)

October 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMB

I was going to say, "This was really beautifully written," and then point out the same line as Anne-from-Iowa did. But . . . I guess I won't. Even though it was.

ALSO, I really liked the description/personification of the shuttles. Not everyone could write this kind of stuff like this.

October 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJennwith2ns

I mean . . . write *about* this kind of stuff like this.

Ahem. As I was saying . . .

October 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJennwith2ns

Many thanks, Jenn. The orbiters really do have their own personalities-- they were all built at different times, don't weigh the same, and have their own individualized sets of thermal tiles :) I do think they have stories to tell.

October 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMB

We've been running quite a few Mars-related news over @ The Daily Grail. How the trip could be made in just 39 days, but the level of radiation will be too dangerous to any astronaut embarked during the trip.

There's been even talk that the only way we could go to Mars in less than 30 years would be if the astronauts agreed it would be a one-way ticket!

But maybe the only way to ensue a Mars trip is if America saw the Chinese go to the Moon before their planned return.

October 22, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterred pill junkie

[...] shuttle Atlantis has a friend on the pad (and no, that does not mean what you think it means.) Share and [...]

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