A Space Shuttle for Houston

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).

Explorer Photo from NASA

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.

The last flight of the space shuttle

is a major event in my neighborhood.  I’ve lived a mile or two from the Johnson Space Center since 1976.  I’ve never worked in a field directly related to the space program, but many of my neighbors are very much involved with NASA.  My next door neighbor and her late husband both worked at NASA until they retired.  My across-the-street neighbor, John Young, walked on the moon in 1972 and commanded two shuttle missions.

I found myself living so near the Space Center by chance; Jack just wanted to live near the water, so we bought a house near Taylor Lake, Clear Lake, and Galveston Bay.  But I grew up with the dream of space exploration.  I was in elementary school in south Florida when the first Sputnik went up.  I remember the years of the space race with the Russians, and the transformation of Cape Canaveral into Cape Kennedy.  And I remember cutting my literary teeth on science fiction, starting with Robert Heinlein’s young adult adventures and moving on through every fictional solar system in the library.

I was in junior high school when Alan Shepard made that first sub-orbital flight, so exciting at the time that we brought our transistor radios to school and listened to it live.  A year or so later we listened to John Glenn  soar above the earth for three full orbits.  Baby steps, from today’s viewpoint.

I graduated from Florida State University in the spring of 1969, and stayed in Tallahassee that summer to work on an archeological dig (all sun-baked red clay and fire ants), so I watched the first moon landing with an enthusiastic crowd at the FSU student union.  We were all poor students and few of us owned TV sets, but that was probably an advantage.  Watching history in a packed hall was a thrill in itself.

The following April, I sat in the library at Tulane University, where I was a graduate student, holding my breath as I watched the safe landing of the aborted Apollo 13 mission.  As I write this tonight, an old Star Trek episode plays on my TV.  Captain Kirk just said, “Risk is our business.”  Surely that encompasses much of the lure of space exploration, real or fictional.

By the time the shuttle missions began in 1981, I was busy earning a living in the very earthbound field of archeology, and the flights became increasingly routine, until that terrible day in January 1986 when the Challenger exploded.  I had neighbors on that flight, although I didn’t know them personally.  Risk, as Captain Kirk said, was their business.

The shuttle flights went on, spanning thirty years and one more dreadful accident when the Columbia flew apart on re-entry in February 2003.  I remember being glad the Columbia crew had their time in space before the end, something the Challenger crew did not.

Now the last shuttle is on her last flight.  The fleet never became the cheap, reliable transportation the program hoped for.  Terribly expensive, subject to mechanical breakdowns and weather delays, a long way from the vision of 2001: A Space Odessey, with its routine commercial flights to a spinning orbital station.  Perhaps the end of the program was the sensible decision.

They say we’ll have a new and better fleet in a few years, but the wait to return to space makes me sad.  Oh, I know the Space Station is still there, and American astronauts will serve on it, but they will travel on Russian spacecraft, something of an ironic twist, remembering those Sputnik days so many years ago.

I remember the beginning of the Space Age, and I hope to see a good bit more of it.  Will I live to see human beings (I will not limit that to men) walk on the moon again, or better still on Mars?  I hope so.  And I hope they get there on American ships.