So I woke up yesterday around noon, and was messing with Internet Explorer on this new Windows 2000 installation, trying to get the google toolbar installed. In the course of that, I ended up going to the google news page, and the top story was something like “A history of the Shuttle program.” I thought, “That’s pretty bizarre for a top news story – google’s sort algorithm must’ve gone completely sideways.” Then I looked at the link and it mentioned the crash of the Columbia, and I thought, “shit, what a glaring error – it was just the anniversary of the Challenger crash, not the Columbia. The Columbia is still operational – it’s landing today…”
Then I realized that something was wrong, and I turned on the news and saw the Shuttle was in bite-sized pieces all over East Texas. Holy shit.
When I was a kid, they used to gather us all in the library of our elementary school, or wheel in one of those A/V carts with a big, clunky, 1970s institutional-looking TV, so we could watch every Shuttle takeoff and landing. This was heady stuff in the height of the cold war; the demonstration of American might and technology. I ate this stuff up, too. I’d read every single book in the library about Apollo, Gemini, Mercury, Skylab. I knew every mission, every failure. I knew about Apollo 13 before Apollo 13 was a household word, when it was a seldom-mentioned blemish on our space program. Like many other ten-year-old kids of the era, I thought that in the million years it would take me to graduate high school and college, they would be running Shuttles to the moon and mars like Delta runs flights to Cancun, and in the distant future of 1998, I’d only need to make a quick trip via personal jetpack to the nearest spaceport for a Star Wars-like trip to the beyond. After I got bored of dinosaurs and before I found out about computers, space travel was a Big Deal.
One day we’re all watching a landing attempt, and this is a mission where they had some high winds and couldn’t land in California, so after a very tense one-day delay, (“Wow! Will they have enough air and Tang to last an extra day?”) they glided in to some other air force base, I think in Arizona or Nevada or something. I’d look this up, but I’m sure every Shuttle site on line is disconnected due to overload today. So just trust me on this one.
Anyway, the teachers are white-knuckling it, hoping the pride of the space fleet doesn’t have problems, while most of us are bored and wondering if we get to play kickball on recess today. And this one kid named Rick – maybe I should explain him. He looked like he could’ve made the final casting call to the movie Gummo, the kind of career hyperactive juvenile delinquent that spent so much time in the principal’s office, he had his own desk and phone in there. He lived in the trailer park white trash part of the school district, a small minority among the more typical whitebread, take-care-of-the-lawn-and-keep-up-with-the-Jonses folks that populated most of the subdivisions in the area. Rick was a prototypical headbanger, and the first kid I ever knew who was on Ritalin (although he chose to sell most of his dosage to other kids so they could cop a high while he ran rampant and caused chaos.) Coincidentally or not, Rick was also an amateur BMX racing star, the champion of his division in the state or maybe the world. It’s no surprise, considering they could put him in the chute on a stripped-down moly bike and have him punch the pedals like a motherfucker for two minutes of hyperactive rage.
Anyway, while the teachers are fearing the worst from this Shuttle problem, Rick jumps up and starts yelling “I HOPE IT CRASHES! I HOPE THE FUCKER BLOWS UP!” while he runs around the room in a Tasmanian Devil-like rage. The teachers had a fit at this act of total sacrelige and dragged him into a back room to beat him within inches of his life. (This was long before every square foot of elementary schools were wired with security cameras, and when teachers could still keep a rugby bat drilled with blood holes on their desk as a disciplinary aid.)
Fast-forward a few years, and I’m a high school freshman, sitting in a study hall and counting the minutes to lunch. In comes this dude who was much like Rick, the motorhead-type dude that was majoring in shop class and already had a mustache and two kids by the 9th grade. He came in and told me, “Dude! The fuckin’ Space Shuttle blew up! I just saw it on TV in the library!” Although partially amazed that he actually used his library pass to go to the library and not to go behind the school and inhale some glue, it also floored me that it could’ve happened. I thought maybe he was just pulling my leg, a prank concocted in a haze of cheap pot and model cement, an outburst like the one that Rick pulled years earlier. But by the time lunch started, there was more and more verification, and I knew it was real.
I feel strange about the whole thing. In terms of human life lost, it’s seven people; on 9/11 I personally knew four people, and way more people obviously died that day. Any time an army chopper goes down in Afghanistan, it’s about as many people; many more than seven test pilots have lost their lives in the construction of these craft over the last few decades. It’s not going to stop air travel, and it’s not going to (directly) cause major economic issues. We won’t go to war with someone over this loss, and we don’t have to rebuild or mourn some large metropolitan area because of it.
But of course, the space program is fucked. The ISS is doomed, the Shuttles may never fly again, and forget any sort of funding for any of the various Shuttle replacements that are on the drawing board. It will be years until we send people back into space, and the Russians are far too broke to do anything more than get back the three guys that are stuck in the ISS right now. Any hopes you may have had in seeing a man on Mars within your lifetime are now lost. And that’s too bad. Like I said, twenty years ago, I read every single book I could find on the subject, fact or fiction, and I’ve spent the last two decades following everything, reading everything, and hoping that ISS would be the first step to bigger and better things. This really sucks.