On July 8th, 2011, in the late-morning Floridian heat and haze, the final NASA Space shuttle mission will commence, shooting a crew of four men and women—part of NASA’s exploration program known as “Constellation,”-- directly to the International Space Station. For twelve days, the four aboard the shuttle known as Atlantis, will make necessary repairs, update old gear and take it all in, one last time. In addition to the shuttle program coming to a close, NASA’s space exploration program, Constellation will also get the axe. Constellation hoped to use newly designed, highly sophisticated spacecrafts to send astronauts to the Moon in 2020, and then Mars some time after. For space enthusiasts and members of the space industry, it will indeed by a somber day. But, for so many others, it will be just another day, a blip on their radars; the noisy, cacophonous blast of the space shuttle nothing but a bit of white noise far off in the distance, never to be heard again.
A little dramatic? Perhaps. But, it is a momentous occasion—America’s space exploration program, which once made lofty promises of colonization and space-agriculture, will cease to exist. If you had high hopes of renting a townhouse in-between the Earth and the Moon, now would be a good time to start looking for alternatives.
I will admit that I never put an incredible amount of thought into the United States of America entering space until I watched R is for Rocket on Network Awesome, put together by our very own Jason Forrest. Sure, I’ve always thought it was a neat thing, flying out of our slow-moving sphere, bopping around on the surface of the moon, collecting rocks and dust for research. But, I never understood those other people - the ones that collected or built plastic rocket ship models, or those who refused to dress as anything but an Astronaut for Halloween, constantly in awe of the “final frontier” and its seemingly endless possibilities. I was too busy trying to trick my mother into buying me a Sega Genesis or Nerf guns. But, now, after seeing these clips, I’m hooked, just in time for the final flight.
Have you ever watched a space shuttle launch in slow motion? You can here. Watching the shuttle, weighing upwards of 4.5 million pounds, leaving massive fires in its wake is enough for you to contemplate your entire life. What about living in space? There’s that, too. In the late 1970s, a Princeton University Physicist named Gerard O’Neil teamed up with NASA and Stanford University to conduct in-depth studies on the possibility of space colonization. In a NASA-produced video here, scaled models, along with proposals for complete sustainability, manufactured gravity and domiciles are presented in a sort of guided tour of what living in space might look like for up to 10,000 people.
It’s all pretty fascinating stuff but what’s most important to note is the common thread that seems to emerge across all these clips. Every single clip, though deeply serious and unsentimental in every way, is underscored with a great sense of wonder. It’s fitting that the entire compilation begins with Charlie’s Atlas, a piece in which a child sets off bottle rockets imagining that the little, black-powder filled things are actual space shuttles preparing for liftoff into the great beyond. Sure, highly intelligent, reasonable people who live lives completely rooted in logic run NASA and all other space exploration entities, but there is a sense amongst these folks that they are continually amazed and thankful to be doing the work they do. It’s evident in "The Incredible Journey of Apollo 12" when the astronauts Pete Conrad Jr., and Alan Beam step onto the surface of the moon for the first time, remarking “Wow, look at that rock over there!” and generally standing around in awe. The tones of their voices suggest that they’re still surprised they’d made it this far. And, shouldn’t space exploration warrant that kind of enthusiasm? How many times have you sat on a porch somewhere, staring up at a clear night, and finding yourself amazed at the bright lights dotting the sky? Or those rare times you cut up a Mylar balloon to safely view a solar eclipse (no? just me?)? Shooting stars. A bright, full, moon. Spotting funky constellations. Friggin Star Wars. Space, in all its everlasting glory is truly, wholly awesome.
Unfortunately, we’ve become a little sidetracked since Neil and Buzz stepped onto the Moon’s dusty surface in 1969. We’re constantly inundated with new technologies we can now hold in our hands; computers are no longer mythical and the phones in our pockets can do scads more than even a graphing calculator. So, in some ways, it’s not all that surprising that the launching of a space shuttle is no longer as mesmerizing as it once was.
Sure, iPhones are cool. It’s neat to have the ability to hold something in your hand that knows your exact location, what kind of music you like, and what your friends are doing while also having the power to discreetly capture high-definition video of two guys arguing on a city sidewalk. All in one place. It’s sweet, I get it. But, do me a favor: think about texting on a touch screen. I’ll do it too, with you. Okay. Did you do it? Now: think about the deep craters on the surface of the moon and what may have caused them. Think about the never-ending anticyclonic storm happening in the “eye” of Jupiter. Think of lonely ol' Pluto hanging out in the far reaches of the universe, enduring an identity crisis. Okay. Let it marinate. And now, do something else with me: if it’s nighttime, put your phone down on your kitchen table and walk outside. Stare into the sky. Hopefully it’s nice and clear outside. And, if so, you will see something more awe-inspiring than whatever emoticons your friends might be texting you. And, if you’re really inspired, head on down to Orlando on July 8th. For just $38 bucks you can see the last space shuttle in America disappear into the sky.