05 June, 2012

Around The World In 90 Minutes

NASA constructed five shuttlecraft. Both Challenger and Columbia were destroyed in tragic accidents, and Endeavour landed on June 1 after the last of her 25 missions. I wrote and posted most of what follows after watching the shuttle Discovery blast off for her 39th and final mission. The shuttle program has ended, but last week I caught up with Discovery again - this time at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport. It's a companion facility to the Museum on the National Mall. Awesome - but then I have always been a space junkie.

I remember President Kennedy in 1962 saying "We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard ... " I grew up with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. The family of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, lived in my hometown of Virginia Beach. I recall the unbridled excitement of the great CBS newsman Walter Cronkite as he covered every emerging space race milestone, and I watched television, utterly transfixed, as Neil Armstrong took mankind's first steps on the moon.

Until a few years ago, what I never got to do was watch an actual launch. I was in Florida frequently but my trips never corresponded with the launch dates. In 2007, however, I was in Orlando for a conference, and a launch was scheduled. Wild horses could not have kept me away. I jumped in the car and headed for Cape Canaveral - being certain to arrive early so I could park close (in spite of the crowds) to the spot where I had decided to view the majesty.

So there I was - sitting in the car beside US 1 near Kennedy Point Park in Titusville. It's about three hours until launch, and there wasn't much to do except listen to the radio. Wow - I was excited though. Even without binoculars and 11 miles from Launch Complex 39A, I knew it was going to be spectacular. And what a beautiful day - not a cloud in the sky and warm, with only calm winds.

The time came, and the hundreds of viewers around me were counting down to zero. As I looked east across the Indian River, I could see the shuttle rising above the trees. Silence. Where's the noise? Then it dawned on me that it was 11 miles away, and at a mile every five seconds, it would be almost a minute before I heard anything. About the time I figured that out, the roar hit. It was like an earthquake - crack, rumble, roar. Everything shook. You felt it in your bones. The thunder continued for what seemed like forever with the only change being that it just became louder.

And the plume of smoke was incredibly beautiful. I watched until it was out of sight, but by then it was hundreds of miles away. I wiped away the tears and returned to the car for a decidedly earthbound drive back to Orlando and dinner with my wife. If the truth be told, I was as happy as a puppy with two tails.

I hoped then that maybe I could get closer someday - if the universe aligned just right and if I could wrangle a VIP pass to the Kennedy Space Center. Standing beside it in a museum doesn't count. Of course, I now know it will never be. Even then, however, I felt it might be difficult since our country seemed to have forgotten Kennedy's words. We seem to have become a nation who can't be bothered or inconvenienced, a nation who looks for the easy way.

Today there are so many who demand their special piece of the action that the possibility of shared sacrifice or a collective rising to meet a genuinely grand challenge seems quite remote. We need to build a high speed rail system or wean ourselves from oil or conquer cancer or maybe, just maybe, go back to the moon. We dearly need something to inspire us so that we all once again cheer for the same accomplishment, something so that we all once again pull in the same direction.

We've been warned about a house divided ...
TGB