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Monday
Apr302012

Four Ladies

There are two ships on my mind.  One is famous for being beneath the sea.  The other got as far away from it as human beings possibly can these days.
The retirement of Discovery and the centennial anniversary of the loss of Titanic were borne to me on images from NASA.com and the National Geographic Channel.  There was a bright blue sky and rusted, rotting pieces.  The sight of Discovery was bittersweet:  This was the workhorse of the fleet, the dependable eldest sister who ascended to the position of matriarch once her elder sisters—first Challenger, then Columbia—fell to Earth.  In both cases, when NASA returned to flight, it was Discovery who was first to the launchpad.
What delighted me about the images of Discovery soaring over Washington Monument and White House were the realization that NASA hadn’t done one damn thing to clean her up.  The silica tiles were scorched, the nose was dinged, the coated underbelly was streaked in the direction of flight.  F-you, says Discovery, I am a working woman and I will not alter myself for my closeup. 
Most people are used to seeing the orbiters in faraway shots on the launchpad, the cameras maintaining a respectful distance.  They seem immaculate.  They are not.  The tiles get gouged and the outer skin is worn.  They are scars, hard-earned.  And the parts of the ship that look smooth—these are covered with ridged silica blankets which  protect the upper body from the heat of re-entry.  The texture is what makes these orbiters real.  Like most things in life, what you think will be pristine and shining are, upon closer inspection, battered and worn and tired.  And… real.
Meanwhile, two and a half miles beneath the same Atlantic by which Discovery used to rest, there sits Titanic, which left its port gleaming and smooth and now, to us, unreal.  It has passed out of living memory.  All we know of its existence are the blueprints, the menus at auction, and grainy black and white pictures.  Her remains are dull, crumbling.  The only color available to Titanic are the occasional flashes of paint still clinging to the keel and the waving sea fluff which has attached to her remains, its bright tendrils waving like the feathers on the hats of the ladies who once strode upon her deck.   
I was a very little girl when the wreck of Titanic was found, just months before Challenger was lost a few latitudes to the south.  I remember the loss of one ship, but not the discovery of the other.  I do recall sitting on the floor, poring over the first images of the Titanic when they were published in National Geographic—murky and fuzzed, haunting and most certainly not high-def.  There were tiny graphical maps and the eerie dotted outline of a mystery ship which may have passed between Titanic and Californian, one which could have offered refuge but sailed silently on. 
Challenger, well... there was no blurring there.  And no mystery.  That was full color and real time.  There was no question of where it was and what went wrong.  We knew.  We didn’t learn.
But Challenger, along with Columbia, had something Titanic did not, which I suppose is part of what fascinates us about her.  Although lost on liftoff, she’d had her mission.  That was what Nick The NASA Poobah said about Columbia as I wept against him when we stood on the runway where she was to have returned:  She had her mission. 
They say the thrusters on Columbia burst wildly in her final moments, desperately attempting to correct the gyrations of a ship disintegrating in the awful burning atmosphere.  When Challenger broke apart, the solid rocket boosters sailed on, without ship, without direction.  And I am told that on Titanic, too, the engineers stayed below deck, the icy water creeping up their legs and chests, fighting the gravitational inclinations of the ship to keep it afloat as long as possible so that the passengers might have a chance to reach the lifeboats which were lowered, half-empty, into the icy sea. They fought, all of them, and Discovery honored the fighting of her sisters by leaving and returning beautifully, messily whole.
That’s what made them human, the products of humans; that’s what made them real.  None of these ships will ever rise into their natural elements ever again, but in Discovery, we can at least see the texture, the ridges, the dings.  The reality.

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