Driving home from work Friday evening, I found myself nose to nose with a space ship. Well, I had a head-on view of it across an intersection, anyway, as the training replica shuttle Explorer sat on its barge at the foot of Space Center Boulevard, waiting to be hoisted onto an enormous trailer (yesterday) and moved to its permanent home at the Johnson Space Center (today).
I was a bit grumpy by then, because the drive home had taken me about an hour and a half, twice the forty-five minutes it should take on a Friday evening in the summer. I had worried about traffic close to home (I live a couple of miles east of the Space Center, right off NASA Parkway), but it was the Gulf Freeway (under continuous construction since 1952, as we who use it regularly often complain) that was packed and crawling. Whether all those extra cars were headed for Clear Lake for a peek at the Explorer or to Galveston for a visit to the newly opened Pleasure Pier, I don’t know, but traffic was as bad as it ever is.
I’ve lived in an area dominated by NASA and the Space Center since 1976. I lived in South Florida as a kid, and watched the early space flights with equally local interest. I was as sad as my NASA neighbors when the Shuttle Program ended last summer. Houston wasn’t too happy when the space-faring shuttles were assigned to retirement in other cities, either. (The Kennedy Space Center and the Smithsonian we understood, but New York City? Los Angeles?) Being given a mock up as a consolation prize didn’t seem all that exciting at first glance. But it has its advantages. The Explorer will be less expensive to display and maintain, and that matters, as these legacies do not come with an expense account.
The big advantage, though, will be that the Explorer will be open to the public. Really open. Once it is set up and ready, probably this fall, visitors will be able to go inside and get a bit of a feeling for the conditions of space flight–at least our first tentative steps at space flight.
Truthfully, I’ve been more intrigued over the last couple of weeks by the flight of the SpaceX Dragon, with its cargo of supplies, to the International Space Station. And just as impressive, the Dragon’s successful return to a splashdown in the Pacific, laden with experiments and “other cargo.” (One wonders–bringing the trash home?) This project has had a lot of NASA participation, but it is definitely the first step in a shift toward commercial spaceflight.
I did my weekly shopping on the other side of Clear Lake yesterday, to avoid the traffic around the Space Center, and I haven’t ventured out today. Let the weekend visitors enjoy the party, although I might have gone to look myself if it wasn’t just a little bit out of my walking range. But I’ll be driving by it (and a couple of much older rockets that have been on display at JSC for decades) every day on the way to work. And in the fall I’ll wander over to see the Explorer from the inside.