So long to the shuttles

As a 30-something who grew up reading, over and over, the section from the Encyclopedia Britannica on the space program, when I listened to the story today on NPR of the first departure of a shuttle to its final resting place, I had a range of feelings. Generally they were bittersweet. On the one hand, hearing of the ways NASA has planned to have en-route viewings made me extremely happy and proud. On the other, the realization that these beautiful, complex, very imperfect creations – much like their makers – who have spent months in space but will never again taste the freedom of open air or the blueness of a perfect day saddens me.

The vehicles once designed to accept and attenuate many times the force of gravity will instead only feel that of a single gravity’s tug. Tiles designed to be ablative in the face of thousands of degrees of friction with the upper atmosphere will instead bask in the climate controlled space they will hang or sit. Engines, long since removed and replaced with replicas, will never exert thrust upon these vehicles.

This process has been much like the death of a person from old age – eventual. The final flights, like the last sweet breaths of a life, were the punctuation at the end of their flight stories. Upon the completion of these last flights, the three shuttles were rolled, ever slowly in their grounded way, towards the very vehicle assembly building where it was previously readied for spaceflight, but now the building served not as a re-nourishment but as a mortician. The shuttles were carefully hoisted into a scaffolded configuration inside the building, as if on a gurney, splayed open and then drained of their bodily fluids for their display to us, its loving family. Nasa is outfitting them with prosthetic replica engines and parts – their Sunday best – for the viewings along its trip before they rest.

And like a grand Emperor beloved by its subjects, we have painstakingly chosen its huge tombs such that these both physical and metaphorical giants will be visible for generations to come. Millions of people will pass in front of its unseeing eyes at it counts the passage of time in years, decades, and perhaps centuries.

What will future generations far in the future think of it? Will it be an ancient relic, similar to the pyramids, where they will wonder how our simple knowledge and ancient technology were able to fly these as we did? Or will they instead look at them as the genesis of their reaches into the cosmos?

My hope is that their esteem and thoughts of the shuttle program include all the love and affection of children like I was, where every trip into the history of the program was a poignant reminder to look to the sky and dream of tomorrow. This is one of the many gifts the shuttle gave. We mourn their passings from flight today.

And let us not forget Challenger. And Columbia. Of these we have but fragments and photos to remind us. Your memories live on and we miss you.

So thank you, shuttles. Rest you well.


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