Thursday, July 14, 2011

The end of an era

When I was in first grade, we made model Space Shuttles from paper airplanes and toilet paper tubes in anticipation of a shuttle launch. Then, on the day of the first* lift off of the Space Shuttle Columbia, we had fresh popped popcorn** and watched the liftoff on TV. We sat in awe of the flame and smoke and space. We had another popcorn event when Columbia landed. And thus the amazement and grandeur of space travel filled the minds of the six and seven-year olds in small town Wisconsin. At that age, we didn't realize what it took to take a machine into the sky, we didn't realize it was an endeavor fraught with danger, we didn't realize that those brave men (for it was only men at that time) may never come down to earth.

Columbia's First Launch

Later on in elementary school we had actual astronauts visit us from NASA. The rumor (or perhaps truth) is that they thought they were going to Evansville, Indiana (pop. 125,000 or so in the early 1980s) which is much larger than Evansville, Wisconsin (pop. 3000 give or take). We learned what the letters in NASA stood for; we ate freeze dried ice cream; and we attempted to comprehend the size of the shuttle and the distance it would travel. Space was cool, the space shuttle was cool, and the astronauts were cool. They made the space program real.

In fifth grade our space reverie was shattered. While sitting in my desk (last row on the left, third seat from the front), waiting for the teacher to start a video an announcement was broadcast over the loudspeakers. I have no idea what was said, or even who made the announcement. I do remember our teacher foregoing the video and attempting to get a television signal so we could watch what was happening. It was the first time our generation was part of a national event. In that moment, we realized that even the good things in our lives, the things that made us hope for something more, could come to an end. I think it was the first time we experienced and understood that grief was something that an entire country could share.

The Challenger

In 2003, I turned on my computer to check my email (I'm not one to watch television). There, in one of the windows was an image of something exploding in the sky. My stomach sank, but my first thought was, "Oh, it's just something from the Challenger explosion." And then it wasn't. My stomach sank further than it had in a long time. The Columbia disaster seems to be dwarfed by the Challenger disaster before it, but in my mind, it is this later explosion that ended the romance of space travel. The Columbia was the first shuttle that went up. It is fixed in my mind as a time of amazement.

The final launch
Now the final shuttle mission is nearing the end.  The Atlantis will land and become a museum piece. Space travel will be turned over to commercial entities. No longer is the government the sponsor of (literally) out of this world ventures. That is what government should do, support the grandiose aspirations of the best and the brightest. Yes, there are plans for the next stage of space travel, but for those of who grew up with the shuttles, there's a bit of magic is gone. And that seems a little sad.


*The first launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia was April 12, 1981 around 7:00am eastern. Which would have been long before school started for the day and when I was still in kindergarten. My memory is very distinctly of first grade and with Mrs. T. So, despite the fact my memory feels it was the first launch, it clearly must not have been. Looking at the launch time line I'm guessing it was more likely the third.

**My scent-track of elementary school is filled with the smell of air-popped popcorn served on industrial-grade brown paper towels.

Parts of this post have been culled from "My Columbia Eulogy," an email sent to my friends after the Columbia disaster, saved, recovered, and resent by JLH. Thanks.