Yesterday, April 18 started like any other day. Up at 5:30 AM for a morning run, home for breakfast with my wife and young son and then on to my much valued fifteen minute commute to work. On my commute, I was listening to WTOP. For those of you that do not reside in the Washington DC area, WTOP is our all-news channel.
It was 8:40 AM. Knowing that news channels were famous for structure, I was expecting sports at 8:45 AM and then Money News at 8:55 AM. In between those markers, the usual radio ad spots and the occasional improvised comments about the nice weather. Fairly routine and with little effort and great thoughts, the whole radio experience would fade to the background and become part of the ambiance of a very enjoyable ride up Route 28.
But this morning was not to be like other mornings. Sports ran precisely at 8:45 AM but was presented in a very abrupt and terse manner. The usual banter about the weather was replaced by discussions about when the Space Shuttle Discovery atop a specially modified Boeing 747 was scheduled to arrive at Dulles Airport. Hmm, looking out the window, I could see Dulles Airport across the road from Route 28. And more importantly, the aging tandem was scheduled to arrive on Runway 1 South. Again, if I parked my car where I stood, I could walk to be standing in the middle of the Runway in five minutes.
As I entered Route 28 North Bound Traffic, the news crew began signaling that the shuttle was running way ahead of schedule. Originally scheduled to enter Washington Airspace at 10:30 AM to 10:45 AM, it was now scheduled to be in the area at 9:30. I was scheduled for a staff meeting at 10 but this was not an ordinary day. The space shuttle Discovery was special. Suddenly all my childhood memories of space shuttle launches and disasters came racing back. Heck, I am even old enough to have enjoyed Apollo launches and the magnificence of a Saturn Five rocket launch balanced with the claustrophobic surroundings of the LEM. And most of all I watched men walk on the moon live in my living room. The decision was easy, I decided to take the staff call from the road.
I swung around to position myself not in the Air and Space Museum but in a field across Route 28. While there was no traffic less than a half hour ago, there was now a full blown mob all looking for improvised parking along the narrow streets. I watched as young and old exited their cars and filled the best viewing spots along the road. Many crowed forward but I stood by my car in a less crowded area. I lived less than five minutes from the spot and had come here more than once to watch airliners depart and land from Dulles Airport. It was a great place to reflect on things.
As the crowd continued to build, I could not hope but notice it was now a carnival atmosphere. People had brought chairs, food and drink to witness the event. It was now 925AM. The adjacent car had their windows open and the owner was also listening to WTOP. The news caster informed us that the Shuttle and its escort where now in DC airspace.
Another five minutes passed and then the team arrived. Straddled atop a modified 747, the ole Veteran Spaceship lumbered by. It was at that moment the sense of awe and inspiration that I had grown to associate with our space program rushed in and for one moment on one day the world felt right. After passing us, the team made several "victory laps" around the DC area. It was during this break that I hustled off to work and began my day.
Listening in the car, the structure of the news cast was totally broken now and WTOP went to strict reporting from around DC about the Shuttle's progress. The reports were exciting and filled with a sense of joy. I thought to myself for one day or maybe even two hour patch no one discussed deficits, taxes, shootings and the normal line up so common to American news. This was a really feel good story and one that was not jammed into the last 90 second slot of the news cast.
And as I sat down to begin my work day at my desk, the venerable pair appeared outside my window. They were now on their last circle before swinging into land. I watched as they went by and thought to myself -- is this it? Knowing the Space Shuttle program was over, I could not help but think what was next for Americans in Space. Because as with baseball, the pride and achievement embodied by the space program has now become part of the American fabric. Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney, challenge us again, define what is next for America in Space?