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Sunday
Aug142011

Omega

It is perhaps a very good thing that the Internet wasn't a way of life when I was a little girl.  My mother had trouble enough smoothing the path between me and my understandably wary peers when I had only the same 30 bent-open books for company; if I had access to an ever-changing, constant supply of information on shuttle innards and saddle parts, I might never have even known the everlasting glory of the lawn sprinkler. 

In the final days of the space program, as I sat with my wedding ring resting against a cheap keyboard, I could see ice crystals from the external tank flaking off into the lower reaches of space, the orbiters pushing away with a frosty underbelly... as it happened.

The same technology which may have held me captive as a child freed me to see the end of the shuttle era as a big girl.  The house I grew up in now sold fifteen years since, I was on a temporary residency in Massachusetts, and while the Fellows' House boasted two flat-screen televisions, none of the PhD's occupying the seven bedrooms could figure out the remote.  So after some minor panicking, I was able to open the live link to NASA TV.  I'd almost outsmarted myself; after working so many launches at the Kennedy Space Center with a far longer list of scrub dates than go's, I assumed the thing would stay on the ground longer than expected.  But, almost as if she was ready to get the overness over with, Atlantis departed almost right on time.

I cupped my hands around the monitor against the July sun and thought of the little television set in our West Side kitchen, on which I saw my first launch; I swear I remember the external tank as its original white, but given that the TV depended on an actual antenna for the signal feed, it could have just been raining in Cincinnati. Also I was a baby at the time.

On the small flat screen in Massachusetts, a spiffy little set of sparkles continually rotated about the NASA logo, and I wondered how in the world, if I still worked at KSC, I would have managed to convert all of technical speils and information sessions into the past tense, for that is the protocol at the moment-- it's not a spaceport anymore.  It's a museum. On the NASA site it still hasn't been done, the text in its present tense eerily reflecting an age which is now past. 

At the same time the future we never could have imagined bumped up against the launch; astronauts can receive email and cell calls in orbit, some douche at the still-not-capacity press site waved at the camera with his iPhone to his ear, and members of the launch team tracked data on full-color LCD screens instead of weighing out fuel on a scale which ran from the bunkhouse to the rocket.  In Houston, a wireless support team awaited, looking at camera feeds from nearly every available angle to babysit the orbital laps.  There would be no man with a skinny tie and a slide rule manually sliding a mock-up of John Glenn's tiny capsule along a room-sized sine wave.

Nick The NASA Poobah, who trained me in all things good and orbiting, sent me a series of photographs of the changes at hand on the Space Coast; I got as far as this one and had to close the browser.  This scrap pile was formerly the vital rotating service structure on Launch Pad B, which wrapped its steel arms around the delicate tiles of the orbiter, shielding it from the Florida sun and corrosive salt of the ocean that crashed up against an untamed shore just a few feet away.  That was how the as the shuttle stack looked more often than not as it awaited launch:  "You can't see Discovery," I'd say to a busload of British businessmen or sunblock coated Space Campers as we trundled past the pad.  "She's safe underneath the RSS, but you'll see her on launch day."  Now we won't see either, but my, won't we fetch a bundle at the recycling center.

It was an exhausting goodbye tour, partially because it dragged on so long, and perhaps since this ending was but one rock in an avalanche of recent losses for me. I felt... relief when it was finally done.  In truth, the landing seemed more of an historical marker than a moment of personal loss.  Perhaps it's because it came as I was immersed in studies on the American Revolution at the time, tracking the orbits of Atlantis on the laptop at my elbow as I bent over the brittle pages of primary school primers published in the 1760's. 

This granted context, but not necessarily comfort; the Cold War which drove the space race has now shifted to a point where the United States must depend upon rides from Russia's originally intended Moon vehicle to continue work on the International Space Station.  This could be hailed as a kumbyatastic new era in transnational cooperation and a stellar marker of peace amongst the superpowers... or it could be an orbiting reminder of where we aren't anymore and may well will never be anywhere close to again.  The fact is that while my generation is the first in human history born into a world where space travel had become routine, my nephews were plonked down in front of the launch because none of us have any idea when the next one is going to be.  If ever.

We 80's babies mark the loss of Challenger as a cultural touchstone--perhaps the first time we became aware of ourselves as members of a larger, broader human family, as part of a nation which could be united in loss as well as under Olympics rings.  When I look across a classroom of freshman composition students, I am discomfited by the fact is that they came to consciousness in a world in which the loss of life in space was not just an amorphous possibility, but a fourteen crew member fact.  For them, the world became the world when their nation came under attack using their own modes of vacation transportation.

We humans don't like endings because they mark a moment of finishing, of loss, whether it's the end of a life or a year or a hockey season.  It doesn't mean anything unless that which has ended was purchased with sweat, labor, and accomplishments--or, at the very least, the sweet buoyancy of hope and expectation.  But what makes the ending bearable is often the dawn of another, perhaps even better stage: eternal life, better apps, next season with a new quarterback.  When the wheels of Atlantis stopped on that grooved runway where my own sneakers were once blessed to tread, the transition was to nothing but honoring what had already happened.  There is good in that.

But not enough.

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