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Goodbye, space vehicle of my childhood

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Warning: Way more sentimentality and personal information than is normally contained in posts. Beware!

I grew up watching shuttle launches from my backyard in Central Florida. On clear days, I could see the rocket boosters detach and fall forever to the ground. When the shuttles returned, their sonic booms shook the house so hard they set off the burglar alarm.

I grew up thinking that everyone who didn't live in Central Florida sat two inches from their televisions during all shuttle launches, watching their local TV stations because their local TV stations would, of course, air the 8 minutes from liftoff to the abandonment of the external fuel tank, the loss of power, and the takeover of momentum and, soon, gravity.

Goodbye, external tank. We will never be usefully coupled again.
It was only after I left Florida for college that I learned that 99% of news stations didn't cover launches, that the people I went to college with had never watched anything be "inserted" into orbit.

For years and years, I wanted to be an astronaut. I used to imagine myself in the Mission Specialist's seat (because we all knew I was never going to be a pilot, and, besides, I cared about science). I could almost feel the Gs pushing my cheeks into my ear-holes. I could almost see the Earth's curvature. I could almost push off a wall and fly across the room. I wanted that. I even said, on multiple semi-obnoxious occasions before the age of ten, "If I were an astronaut, I would be okay dying because of a space accident. These are the risks." Which, we twice found out, was true.

"Please just go to work and take this thing off me."
Although I'm currently this totally hardened science-type who knows that NASA's money would be better spent on more ambitious and scientifically rigorous projects that probe more distant regions of space, I do still remember the first shuttle launch I remember. I was barely four years old, and I was wearing an STS-28 t-shirt at the STS-28 launch, a too-enthusiastic fan in the way of people who wear No Strings Attached polos to NSYNC concerts. The shirt is pictured below, splayed across my dog.

I was once a person who fit into this shirt, a tiny person standing on Cape Canaveral, looking across the miles of water that separated me from what I already wanted to be. When the shuttle lifted off, I felt it, like an synthetic earthquake or a fist to the chest. Or at least I remember it that way. Maybe it's a metaphor, though.

Who knows if I would have been a space-dreamy child regardless of my proximity to Kennedy Space Center, regardless of how many times I watched a receding trail of rocket exhaust, regardless of how many times I counted down to T-minus nothing and then ran through the back door to watch the horizon.

But I was a space-dreamy child upon whom those space-age blessings were heaped. While the shuttle program may not have been the most productive or scientifically worthwhile or technologically innovative and while it is not ultimately cost-effective to send humans into space to do work non-respiratory robots can do, I didn't know that when I was four, and I didn't think about it when I was eight, and I wouldn't have cared when I was twelve. All I knew was that people--like me but older and probably with better hand-eye coordination--were going outside of our planet on heavy, fiery cylinders with wings, ones that I could point at for a few minutes a few times a year.

I know it's not science-cool to admit that the space shuttle ever moved you (except if it had physically done so), but you know what? It did.

Space science needs programs, or program promotion, that will inspire people. Space science needs to imprint four-year-olds with permanent memories. I'm not saying that we need another manned flight program. In the adult land of budget cuts and election-term-long thinking, it would be unlikely to succeed anyway, even if it had scientific merit commensurate with its cost. However, we need something that stirs public excitement. Or (and this is more the way I lean) we need to portray what we already do as as exciting as it is. I mean, you guys, we remotely controlled robots on MARS. We have discovered potentially thousands of planets orbiting other stars. We send machines to Venus knowing that they will be crushed by its atmospheric pressure. We are awesome. We don't need to mourn the loss of the space shuttle as if it is irreplaceable--we just need to fill the void people feel. That void was left by science (kind of), and we need to fill it back up with the same.

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Reader Comments (1)

I loved this post!

And for the record, even though your hand-eye coordination is sub-par, I still think you would have made a brilliant astronaut.

July 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrooke N.

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