Heavenly Dreams: The End of the Shuttle Program

I will NEVER take photos as good as NASA's! That's one shortcoming I can forgive myself.

When I was a kid I dreamed of being an astronaut.  Images of space shuttles launching into the heavens, men frolicking on the moon, and fantasies of traveling to Mars pervaded my mind.  Space held such wonder for me then.  The first shuttle disaster happened when I was six years old.  I understood the tragedy.  I knew people had died and that the nation had suffered a wound.  I saw my mother shed tears at the news of the catastrophe.  Yet I persisted in my dream to one day either take my own chances in space or at least study the heavens as an earthbound astronomer.

Pale Blue Dot

As I’m sure happened to most kids of my generation, eventually I abandoned my aspiration of going into space and concluded that such a dream was unrealistic.  But I held on to my love of the star speckled dome that opened above me on every clear night of my life.  Sometimes, when I was young, I imagined the night sky to be a dark, hollow sphere surrounded by a medium of light so bright that it must be liquid in quality.  I imagined that our world was nested inside of this black sphere, that its outer shell was shot through with holes, and that through these holes the light outside leaked in little by little.  Brighter specs were bigger holes.  Our sun was the biggest of them all and gushed light aplenty like a perennial spring.  I thought that with each passing moment the hollow sphere in which we were suspended filled with more light, and that if light were the stuff of happiness, then over the eons it would fill our world with a radiance so thick that one day we would be able to run our fingers through it as through water.

Servicing the Hubble Telescope

Twice when I was a boy I remember running into the street to watch the shuttle streak across the evening sky over the Texas Hill Country en route to Cape Canaveral, leaving a trail of plasma in its wake as if it were slicing the heavens in two.  And I remember vowing one day to watch a shuttle launch.  Only one opportunity remains.  The last shuttle will lift off this Friday, July 8.  I won’t be there to see it.

Nowadays I take these Hubble photos for granted, but they're still awe-inspiring.

Is human space flight a waste of money?  I don’t know.  All I know is that as a kid I marveled at the idea of launching people into space.  I idolized the men and women who sat on top of those rockets and, as it turned out, had about a one in fifty chance of never coming home.  For all of society’s delusions about the safety and the routine nature of the shuttle program, I think the astronauts knew the stakes.  They left the comforts of earth, pushed the boundaries of human ingenuity and potential, and in doing so they gave little kids something to dream about.  Armies of scientists, engineers, and (yes) tax payers stood behind them and made the whole spectacle possible.

Hubble photo of a galaxy.

Maybe that’s what dazzled me more than anything: the space program emerged out of millions of hours of labor.  Over sixty years tens of thousands of people devised improbable ways of accomplishing the impossible.  It cheers me to think that all it takes is something like one hundred thousand clever optimists toiling for decades to pull off six manned moon landings, one hundred and thirty-three shuttle missions, the launch of a lone telescope that revealed the universe to be even more stunning and mysterious than we imagined, and dozens of missions to planets, asteroids, comets and moons throughout the solar system.  That we were able to harness the creativity of thousands and direct it to one romantic end gives me hope for the future.

The sun as photographed by NASA's Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope

Jupiter's Red Spot, which has changed significantly since I was a kid.

Saturn as photographed by the Cassini spacecraft

"Stellar Snowflake Cluster"--Hubble

*Disclaimer: I took none of the photos in this post.  I have never traveled into space, never floated above the earth, never orbited the moon.  I did build Star Trek models when I was a kid.  That’s something.  You know you did too… the one person who knows I’m talking about him or her.  You!

All photos from NASA.

*I actually searched for the official number of successful shuttle missions.  I found the numbers 123 and 119, each source dated this year.  TIME published an article today that placed the number at 133.  I guess I’m going with that one!

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Amtrak: Everyone’s Here (Boston to Seattle by Rail)

And so they are: professors, vagabonds, business people, teenagers, families with children, the lost, the lonely, the desperate. All of them are here. In one car two academics discuss health care. In another a woman talks software design on her cell phone. In the lounge car a twenty-one year old college student holds forth on everything under the sun–music, guitars, literature– but he is especially keen to describe Florida thunderstorms and hurricanes, and the fact that until this moment in the Montana Rockies he had never seen snow fall, “the act of it,” he says, “I’ve seen it on the ground.” There’s also Courtney, who is returning to Sacramento, CA from Wisconsin after a three-year absence. She’s lonely and lost. She can’t find a job. She misses the friends she left behind three years ago in California, just after graduating high school. Everyone on the train treats her as if she were their daughter.

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This good will is the best thing I take away from this one hundred and thirty-hour trip back and forth across the continent’s midsection. Most of these people would never cross paths anywhere else in life–not at work, not aboard an airplane, certainly not sitting in gridlocked rush-hour traffic. Each person normally lives in his or her own separate universe. But on the train universes dance around one another and for the duration of the ride share a continuum. They operate on the same laws. They merge. The journey is cathartic, confessional. People mostly get along.

Still, there remains an exception to all of this goodness and conviviality. In this bizarre multiverse of differing personalities and backgrounds there exist a few heartbreaking cases. There are people, only a few, with nothing and no one, who lack either home or destination. Some of them brood quietly. One man, who sat behind me and happened to stay at my hostel the night before, talked to himself incessantly from Seattle to Spokane. He spun conspiracy theories about the “diabolical people from Seattle”. With every step down the aisle he moaned and whimpered like a wounded bear. He clutched at his hip and grimaced. He shrieked in his sleep and jolted awake as if from a nightmare, only to find that he was still living one. I wish I knew what to say beyond providing a description. I can’t omit this encounter because it was too real.

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So to make myself feel better I’m going to imagine that this man will get his life together. He’ll call his brother in California (whom he mentioned in his dialogue with the ether). He’ll get a job, an apartment. He’ll see a doctor and somehow manage to pay for hip surgery. His nights will be restful and he will sleep without pain, without grunting and panting all through the night. I imagine that he’ll wake up early each morning, shower, brush his teeth, dress in dark slacks and a button-up shirt and, with a quick sigh, leave for work. No doubt he’ll complain about work–the monotony of it, the feeling of being a cog in the inscrutable machine–but beneath the surface he’ll like the routine and the meaning it gives to his life. And he won’t worry about diabolical Seattleites, and he won’t rage at the world. He may even come to like it. Or so I imagine.