It’s a funny thing isn’t it? That moment when one of tethers that connects you to some small part of your childhood becomes severed, and just like watching a balloon drift out of reach and into the clouds, you can lose a part of yourself into the fog of memory. We all have these moments when a concrete part of our past is lost. Whether it is seeing your parents move away from your childhood home, or getting rid of your first car, or realizing that all of your favorite TV shows only run on TV Land or Nick at Night anymore. Losing a touchstone to your past can be a traumatic experience. This past week I had to deal with one of these moments, but at least I was able to share my sadness with the country.
On April 17th, at 11:00 AM, the space shuttle Discovery made its final landing. It touched down at Dulles International Airport while strapped to the top of NASA’s specialized 747. It’s hard for me to articulate what this moment was like for me personally, and I am not even sure that I am up to the task of attempting to, but there is something stirring about images like this that inspired me:
There are two stories to be told about the retirement of the space shuttles. The first is a personal story, and I don’t really even know where it begins. As long as I can remember, I was fascinated by space flight. For most of my childhood, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong sat atop my hierarchy of idols, above the athletes and the musicians were the astronauts. I devoured as much information on NASA as I possibly could. My parents took me to the Kennedy Space Center when I was 7, and I still remember staring up at the Rocket Garden and being amazed by the sheer magnitude of these rockets, even when it was right in front of me, it was unimaginable.
For my entire life, one of the constant realities has been human space travel. The shuttles have always been there, they are the norm. Unlike the previous generation, who were introduced to space flight as we broke through the barriers holding us on the Earth, I have never lived in a world where people were not in constant orbit. First it was the Russian space station Mir, and then the ISS, and the shuttle was always there to ferry people back and forth. But even more so than practical purpose of what the space shuttle did, it was what it represented. It was a possibility. For kids growing up in my generation, astronaut ranked up there with fireman, police officer, and race car driver as desirable professions. We believed that it was something that we could attain precisely because not a year would go by without a shuttle being launched into the outer reaches of the atmosphere.
I spent so much of my life being enthralled by the idea of space flight that losing the shuttle to history has been a big paradigm shift for me. I lost something that connects me to the awe-inspired seven year old squinting against the glare of the sun trying to make out the tops of the rockets at the Kennedy Space Center. I lost a the inspiration for a third grade project when I built a space shuttle entirely out of peanuts. I lost the reason that I always loved drinking Tang as a kid (the astronauts drink it too!)
In the years before the internet, my parents had bought an encyclopedia on CD’s for our computer, and on the space shuttle entry, they had a video of the Challenger disaster. I used to sit there watching it over and over again wondering what that must have felt like…and now I feel like I have lost that connection too. So much of my childhood was wrapped up in the heroes and stories of space flight, and losing the shuttle was losing an anchor to the part of me that used to be able to dream.
Life these days is full of mortgage payments and performance reviews at work. Sitting down in a cubicle five days a week leaves precious little time to dream, but every time that a shuttle went up, or we would get brand new photos and videos from the space station, there would be that moment where it didn’t matter that I wasn’t an astronaut…what mattered was that we still had them and they were still doing the important scientific work that would lead us into the future. It was always there, serving as a constant reminder of what it felt like to be inspired to do something huge.
If you have read this blog regularly at all, you know that I still post a lot of pieces about the final frontier, and this lifelong fascination is a direct result of the shuttle program. Without the shuttle there to represent a real possibility, would I have even cared? What will inspire my son? The moonshot brought our nation together 40 years ago, and the shuttle program was there to amaze kids like me…what will be left for the next generation? Will we have to hope that private space travel will be doing enough to incite that curiosity? What if he doesn’t have any astronauts to be his heroes? Does it even matter?
The second story to be told about the shuttle is our national story. We had a chance to say goodbye to the embodiment of American exceptionalism. On Tuesday, like a grizzled old veteran riding in the back of a convertible in a Memorial Day parade, this national hero made three loops over the National Mall, giving the citizens of the District a chance to salute an icon of American achievement.
The Discovery flew more missions than any other shuttle, and logged more miles than any other vehicle that man has ever built. More so than just about anything that we have ever done as a nation – the space program is something that we can all be proud of, and this was a chance to pay our last respects to a retiring hero.
For a good slideshow on pictures of the DC tour, check out HuffPo