Who needs a space shuttle? Three decades after it first launched, the experimental ship became so familiar to the American psyche that its trips to space were often registered by little more than a late segment on the evening news. Like a bizarre relative who’s outstayed his welcome and conducts obscure and potentially dangerous science experiments in the backyard, the Shuttle became a subject of skepticism long before President Obama’s 2009 decision to kill the program.
But a shuttle launch is also the last obvious sign of America’s transcendent dreams of space exploration. It’s one of mankind’s most complex and massive undertakings, a carefully-primed $1 billion explosion that turns years of planning and construction into a spectacle that lasts only a few moments.
To those who’ve witnessed it first-hand, it’s the spectacle of a lifetime. People come to Florida from as far away as Michigan or Alaska or England or Italy, arriving in droves by car and motor home, toting binoculars, blankets and American flags. They line up along a worn river bank in the towns near the launch pad on Cape Canaveral, waiting for days, then nail-biting hours, to see a group of people embark on a completely different kind of journey, this one powered by rockets that do zero to 17,000 mph in 8.5 minutes. To the fans, this is the Super Bowl, NASCAR, the World Cup and Independence Day rolled into one. The astronauts strapped into the massive Space Transportation System aren’t just rocket jockeys. They’re rock stars.
Last year, when Space Shuttle Endeavor was scheduled to leave the Earth at night for the last time on its way to the space station, Motherboard.tv producer David Feinberg and I joined those throngs of space pilgrims. Inspired in part by films like “The Right Stuff” and the underground ’80s documentary “Heavy Metal Parking Lot,” we traversed Cape Canaveral and nearby Titusville in an attempt to capture the launch from multiple angles. We met some of the folks who work at NASA, but our focus was on the fans, who had come from far and wide for a grueling space shuttle tailgate party.
The long waits, cold weather, and even a 24-hour delay be damned. To the masses who had assembled around campfires, on lawn chairs and behind cameras, the event was unmissable. Eventually, the lively camaraderie of the crowd and the anxious anticipation of watching the Shuttle, perched on a launch pad under flood lights miles away, gives way to the breathtaking sight and sound of the ship igniting the dark of a Florida night.
It wasn’t just fireworks. This, the fifth-to-the-last shuttle launch, was another bittersweet milestone at the end of a chapter in America’s space story, an epic saga that began with the heady experiments of the space race and even now, on the eve of the space shuttle’s last launch, extends vaguely into the future, towards the promise of heavy-lift rockets, asteroid landings and Martian colonies.
Lately, those dreams have smashed against the reality of the Obama administration’s trimmed-down NASA budget, a new emphasis on commercial crews, and emerging doubts about the cost and relevance of manned spaceflight. Across the Space Coast, these shifts threaten to rock not only imaginations but livelihoods too. Even as commercial space companies move in and pick up some of NASA’s newly retired workers, locals worry about the deadening effect that the end of the shuttle program will have on an already depressed economy. And fans of spaceflight are left anxiously wondering where the country and humankind goes next. Even the crew of the last shuttle mission has been downsized, from seven to four astronauts. When they land, Atlantis, like the rest of the shuttles, will be packed up and shipped to museums, quiet testaments to an old dream of flight.
But the awe, possibility, hope and frustration of America’s manned space project will linger in memories of a Shuttle launch, that moment when old dreams of space travel, for a few moments, became an overwhelming, mind-elevating reality.