THE BLOG

Reflections on the Final Flight

06/03/2011 06:27 pm ET | Updated Aug 03, 2011

A striking photograph on the front page of today's New York Times: the space shuttle Endeavor coming in for a landing last night, after completing its final mission.  Discovery is already finished its career, and Atlantis has one more run, which will be in July.  No more NASA space shuttles will lift off after that.  

A television was brought into the cafeteria at school.  Televisions weighed a ton back then -- I can still see our principal struggling under the burden as he carried it in.  We huddled as close to the set as we could get, which wasn't very close -- there were about 60 of us, and the screen was small.  But this was historic, and he wanted all of us to be able to say we saw it as it happened: The first American was about to rocket into space.

We saw him walk toward the immense rocket and disappear into the elevator for the ride up to the nose cone.  Clouds drifted back and forth around the rocket's base; this was oxygen, our principal told us.  There was no oxygen in space, we knew, and very little of anything else -- the oxygen pumping into the space capsule was all that would stand between Alan Shepard and a terrible death.  Once he was inside the capsule, the elevator descended with its load of engineers and the final countdown, began.  It was eternal.  We all chanted along -- 10,9.8.7.6,5,4,3,2,1,0...

Liftoff was curiously slow.  I had expected it to be like a shot, but the rocket groaned at its fiery leaving of us, fought to loose  itself from our pull.  When at last it had broken free, it veered crazily off to one side of the screen and then off it entirely, until another camera caught its jagged ascent.  A moment or two of this and then it was gone.

Some static on the screen and then we were inside the capsule.   The astronaut sat in his seat, trussed like a turkey, surrounded by instruments and dials, his thick white oxygen tube tethering him to life.  Only his eyes moved inside his windowed helmet, and his hands moved slowly, jerkily in their clumsy gloves.  They seemed incapable of picking  up much of anything.  We watched the strange sight for a few minutes as Shepard's remained in inscrutable technical conversation with his earthbound partners, interrupted only once by an exclamation in plain English, shocked at the loveliness of the earth he had left behind.  "What a beautiful view!" he said, and the few dozen who have made that escape from its bonds since then have all said some version of the same thing.

Orbiting the moon, then walking on it.   Building an island in the darkness of space and then living in community on it for months at a time, even modeling an international unity on that island in advance of that unity becoming a reality back home.  Creeping across the plains of Mars. Photographing the gorgeousness of heaven, a thousand thousand galaxies in colors too splendid to describe in mere words.  Commuting between the earth and outer space.  Even, perhaps, house hunting.

One shuttle will be on display in California and one at the space center in Florida.  Discovery will live at the Smithsonian Institution, where many of its ancestors also live in retirement, including the one that began it all, in which the Wright brothers first gained the sky in 1903.   

I am always sad when inanimate objects are set aside.  We partner one another, we and our bikes and cars and planes and rocket ships.  We shape them and then they shape us.  When I was little, I wept when we traded in our car for a newer one.  

But the objects don't mind.  They are all right. People who care about history will care for them with something that can only be called love.  And we will know that, without them,  we would not be who we are.