Tuesday, April 17, 2012

God Speed, Discovery, and Thank You

Today marks the final flight of OV-103 Discovery. Strapped to the back of a 747, it traveled from Florida to its new home in the Udvar-Hazy Museum at Dulles Airport. As I write this, I'm watching the shuttle as it taxis after landing*. I wanted nothing more than to be on hand for this historic moment, but sadly, was unable to make it.

Thankfully, it made a few low passes over D.C. before heading to the airport.

Discovery making a low pass over the Jefferson Memorial

Watching Discovery pass by was a bitter sweet moment. On the one hand, it was absolutely breathtaking to see the shuttle "up close", especially since it was the first time I'd ever seen one in person. On the other hand, it marked the final leg of the Shuttle Era which is now, and forever, closed.**

One of the clearest memories I have as a child is watching my first shuttle launch. I was in music class and the teacher stopped everything to wheel in a TV. It was one of those 400-lbs CRT monsters atop a rickety, metal AV cart, but we didn't care. Everyone, even the adults, watched in awe as the NASA controller performed the count down, the engines came online, and Columbia blasted off the launch pad.

The room erupted into cheers.

It was a defining moment for many of us because Humans were once again heading to the stars. Suddenly, the universe wasn't some abstract, distant void. It was tangible, but more important, it was reachable. For a young boy who dreamed of traveling through space, the shuttle proved that it was both believable and achievable.

Columbia on take-off

But adventure into the unknown is not without risks. That point was driven home with the Challenger disaster. The afternoon after Challenger, I cried my eyes out on the front steps of our townhouse. Yet despite the setback, we overcame the loss and hurtled into space once more.****

In the years since, shuttle launches became almost routine. Few people stopped what they were doing to watch them and many were surprised when one returned to Earth. I remember a co-worker once said, "It's landing? When did it take off?" Maybe we grew accustomed to our occasional jaunts to and from space, but I believe in my heart that we, as a species, never stopped being just a little awed by it.

Then one day, not long ago, the shuttle program ended. And with it, our direct access to the stars.

Granted, we still have the International Space Station and other nations are transporting astronauts to the heavens. And there's no doubt in my mind that we'll eventually build a new orbiter because deep down, we still want to explore. But the Shuttle Era is over. 

Columbia opened a new chapter in exploration. Discovery signaled its closing.

Like the majority of people, I was never able to travel the stars (yet!), but that's not the point. What's important is that while our dreams and desires may change over time, the belief that we can achieve them should not. If we have the capacity to conquer the stars, then imagine what else we are capable of.

So thank you to NASA and everyone involved with the Shuttle program. Thank you for giving us over 30 years of flights into the heavens, for amazing advances in technology, and for providing us with a vehicle that fueled limitless dreams.

Someday we'll head back to the stars and when we do, I hope that my children have their classes interrupted so that they can witness something truly fascinating.

And so that they, too, can dream about conquering impossible.

Additional Images:

STS-01 at night.

Night Launch

Discovery on the pad

Discovery's final launch

Discovery over Earth on its second-to-last mission

*Watching on www.nasa.gov.

**Note: Atlantis was the last operational shuttle, completing her final flight on 21 July, 2011.  Discovery was the first to be decommissioned, thereby signaling the beginning of the end of the era.

***image courtesy of http://www.aviationspectator.com/more-aviation-photos?page=425

****Note: I was equally stunned at the loss of Columbia. Dreams, and the violent loss of those trying to fulfill them, cannot be diminished by age.

*****Image courtesy of here (it's a long link.)

******image courtesy of this link

*******image courtesy of this link

********image courtesy of das linky

*********image courtesy of this here link

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