Endeavour Comes to Earth: Thoughts from a Child of the Space Shuttle Program
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- My Photos of Flyover
Taken Sept 21, 2012, 12:30 PM in Anaheim.
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[9.20.12] When I was little, my father was away for six months.
That happens to a lot of families, for many more difficult reasons. Jobs, military assignments, family problems. Mine was a lucky reason: Dad was a rocket chemist, and his company was helping to build a spaceship.
I was an odd child. I wouldn't speak to Dad on the phone while he was away: that would be admitting that he was gone. Once he came home, however, I started to get excited.
Two years before, I'd wistfully told my parents that "I wish I hadn't been born after the space age." In fact, Viking and Pioneer and other space probes were exploring the inner planets in those days, making all kinds of discoveries. Unfortunately, as far as the news was concerned, America had won the space race, so it wasn't news anymore. Nobody knew that space exploration was still happening above our heads. The year was 1978, and my friends only cared about space stuff happening in a galaxy far, far away.
But now my Dad was building a spaceship. As far as I was concerned, it was my dad's spaceship. I didn't understand how many thousands of people were working on the shuttle program.
I had a sturdy model of it, the space shuttle Enterprise, and it was one of my favorite toys. It had doors that opened and closed, moving wheels under the wings and nose, lots and lots of windows, and a fascinating cluster of rocket nozzles out the back. Another smaller but more detailed model of the space shuttle let me play with its science lab or a mini satellite hooked onto the shuttle's robot arm.
I was one of those Trekkies who waxed indignant at NASA's bait-and-switch when it named the first shuttle Enterprise, thanks to a massive grassroots campaign, then made the Enterprise the test flight model that would never reach space. Columbia sounded more patriotic, less nerdy. So Columbia became my big sister (never mind her age; she was big). I waited for three years.
In April 1981, five days after my tenth birthday, my big sister launched for the first time. I'll always associate that launch with Bradbury's All Summer in a Day. I was at a friend's sleepover party, and the adults promised me they'd wake me to see the first shuttle launch, but then decided "just to let me sleep" after all. Nobody had VCRs, so I missed it.
I didn't miss any launch or landing for years afterwards.
Dad's experiments went up on one Challenger launch, so we watched that one live. For the others, I'd sit with my 1/4th scale fold-out blueprints of the shuttle cockpit arranged around an easy chair in the living room with my egg timer. I'd press all the right buttons when the astronauts did, going down the checklists. We recorded the Challenger launch we saw live, with mission control piped through loudspeakers on the beach, so after that I was able to listen to my recording of the rockets' roar. Those rockets, they were the ones built by my father's company.
Years passed. Shuttle launches started to become routine, and the routine of school stopped me from following the missions so closely. I could no longer rattle off the names of all the crew on each mission or what their patch looked like. Nevertheless, the space shuttle was still very dear to me. It was important. I was proud, too, when one of my teachers participated in the program to send a teacher into space, although she didn't make the final cut. I followed the news about Christa McAuliffe, who did.
Children have odd ways of dealing with terrible things. My friends burst into the school dining hall laughing, eager to surprise me. I thought it was a prank when they cried, "It exploded!" I heard "your father is a murderer" after that. He wasn't on the team that worked on the O rings, and he wasn't part of the mission control team that decided to launch after the temperatures had dropped below freezing overnight, but everyone connected with the program -- and their families -- had to grapple with guilt as well as mourning.
Heavy lessons were learned, and the shuttles flew again. Endeavour was built to replace the Challenger. I think I was a little afraid to get too attached to the new ship.
By college I could no longer tell you whether there was a shuttle flying overhead on any particular day, or what they were doing on that mission. Still, I knew about the big missions like the launch of the amazing Hubble Space Telescope. I knew when the Endeavour's crew pulled off a spacewalk marathon like nothing ever attempted before, fixing all of Hubble's broken gyros, solar panels, optics, making it better than new. The stunning pictures we've gotten since, right to the edge of the universe, make Hubble one of the shuttle's greatest triumphs.
Other shuttle triumphs don't make the news — medical and materials breakthroughs developed through the shuttle's space lab research. Also, the shuttles built the ISS. The space shuttle made many impossible things possible.
After I moved away from home, another surprise: Bob Crippen, the commander of the first shuttle mission, had retired from NASA and became my Dad's boss. In my old Space Shuttle Operator's Manual with the dogeared blueprints, Crip wrote a simple dedication: "Reach for the stars."
More pain. Crippen's shuttle Columbia came down two years before my grandmother, a planetarium director, passed away. Columbia broke apart in the skies over her home in Texas.
I mourn two crews lost: one brave crew reaching for heaven, one crew coming back to Earth after making that incredible journey. Space is risky: astronauts know it and accept it. For us, it was a shocking impossibility. The space shuttle's many flights had lulled us into thinking that spaceflight is routine, not a new, unknown, and still dangerous frontier.
For the final shuttle mission, I got almost no sleep, watching the launch online and keeping up with NASA's final push to deliver thousands of pounds of parts to the ISS. Ironically, I fell asleep just before landing, waking up with the sound of the tires hitting the runway as Atlantis taxied back home. No egg timer and casette tapes that time: I had a laptop on my nightstand and watched NASA TV using technology partly developed by the space program.
Thirty years, 135 missions. Amazing accomplishments, most of them out of the news. Now it's over.
Tomorrow the shuttle flies for the last time over my house in southern California. I'm going out to the highest point I can to get a good look. (Indignity of indignities: my chosen spot will be the top of the Disneyland parking garage). The schedule depends on the weather up north, but it sounds like it'll pass us between 10AM and 11 before Endeavor touches down at LAX.
The last flight of the space shuttle will be like that first shaky test flight of Enterprise strapped to a 747, which happened over southern California skies over 30 years ago. All the orbiters were built here. The youngest, Endeavour, is coming home.
I don't want to see it. And yet I do. In 1983, I watched the Challenger soar into the sky. Now I'll watch her replacement, Endeavour, coming back to Earth for the last time.
I'll post photos here tomorrow.
[Update] Sep 21, 2012: My Photos of Flyover
My Photos of Endeavour Crossing Los Angeles
That was fun, but what was more fun was seeing Endeavour trundling through the streets of Los Angeles on giant trucks.
I took the train up to the city and snapped some amazing photos of the space shuttle Endeavour from about 15 feet away as it approached its new home at the California Science Center. Go see!