I don’t know how I remembered it, and managed to do the time calculation correctly, but last week, about five minutes before it happened, I suddenly realized it was the day of the last Discovery Space Shuttle launch. And my Roku box now has the NASA channel (which will be essentially useless after this mission, except to maybe watch some scientist drone through a powerpoint on why some speck of dust on a telescope’s long shot is relevant.) So I fired that up, and watched the stack sit on the pad down in Florida, and waited for the countdown, and thought about that stupid Rush song, but also thought about how I watched the very first Shuttle mission as a kid, and now I’d be watching one of the very last ones.
It’s pretty cliche to talk about how we’d all have jetpacks by now or be able to go out to LaGuardia and catch an American Airlines flight to Mars three times a day in 2011. I spent a lot of time in those pre-Shuttle years as a nerdy kid reading every single book I could find about the Apollo and Skylab. And it always disappointed me that the era right before I was born had tons of launches, capsules that orbited the planet and launched to the Moon and back. And in my childhood, we had a space station made out of leftover junk from moon missions that only got any name recognition whatsoever when it finally fell out of the sky. Meanwhile, the evil Soviet empire was sending cosmonauts up there constantly, living for years in those Soyuz orbiters, eating tubes of borscht in zero G and laughing their asses off at us Yankee bastards.
The Shuttle was a big deal for me as a kid. I spent all of my time playing with a Millennium Falcon, thinking that if the Space Shuttle got off the ground in ’81, by the time I got my driver’s license in ’87, they’d have a ton of those things in the air like Southwest currently has crappy Boeings criss-crossing amongst second-tier airports, and by the time I finished college and entered the much-distant 21st century, it would be no problemo jumping on a high-speed train to O’Hare spaceport and getting on a commercial flight to the moon for a long weekend. So I was riveted to those early launches, the long delays and the shaky cameras from a distance. I guess they flew the tail end of the Apollo missions when I was a baby, and Skylab and that joint Apollo/Soviet flight went up in the early 70s, but the grade school didn’t drag out the giant wood-encased TV on a cart from the AV room for those ones. This was live, and real, and we all stared at the video footage of this tiny airplane-looking thing shoot an insane amount of white smoke and orange flame as it crept upward from the Florida swamp and into orbit.
We watched a couple of those launches back in the 4th or 5th grade, and then it seemed like a Shuttle was going up every other month. It was really 24 missions between the start and the loss of the Challenger, but they had four Shuttles going at once, and it pretty much fell out of the news unless you dug for it. This was long before the days when you could fire up google and point your browser to all sorts of time-wasting distractions detailing every small aspect of manned space flight; typically, the Elkhart Truth would run a paragraph or two per launch, buried somewhere after the local bowling scores. To get any real news, I had to go to Osco Drugs and hunt down a copy of Omni magazine, which typically included a ton of articles on mind-melding and peyote experiments and whatever the hell else they used to write back then.
I didn’t think much about the Shuttle for a while, but when I was a sophomore in college and bored out of my mind at IUSB, I discovered usenet news, and spent a lot of time reading the sci.space newsgroup. The one thing I loved about it was this guy Henry Spencer at the U of Toronto who posted endless amounts of news about the space program. I probably have a bunch of floppy disks somewhere in storage – the 5 1/4 type of floppy disk – that contain endless numbers of those usenet posts. I remember poring over those Shuttle news reports, that showed details of the schedules, what was sitting at what pad, what was being assembled, and so on. And I remember being excited as hell when a nameless OV-105 started appearing on the list, as parts and pieces of the future Endeavour arrived at Rockwell.
The Shuttles kept flying, and after those evil Soviets became our pals, we started swapping Cosmonauts and Astronauts, and Americans hung out on the Mir, and eventually they found a way to hang a Shuttle off the side of that firetrap and give the Russians some hamburgers and Pepsi to go with their caviar, porn collection, and frayed combustible wiring harnesses. But around that time, I realized how the whole space exploration thing was under attack from both sides of the aisle, and how we’d never dump the money in it to get any man to Mars, let alone this man. The left-wingers saw that NASA budget as a bottomless money pit that went to defense contractors; the right-wingers didn’t like the idea of non-Jesus-related science research or the flight of any space hardware we couldn’t use to kill brown people from orbit.
So yeah, you boomers got golf on the moon, while us GenXers got a nearsighted space telescope, a couple of exploding Shuttles, and too many Mars landers and orbiters that blew up or crashed or otherwise went MIA. But not only that, but the children of the 60s had this whole legacy put forth that had to do with a space race. They had a President that pulled out of Marilyn Monroe long enough to say, “God damn it, we’re going to put a man on the moon even if it kills us”, and even after the CIA/Mafia/freemasons/Scientologists/aliens blew his head off, everyone still followed the order and put a damn man on the moon. Nowadays, if the President took a 31-minute lunch break, he’d come back to find some bastards dismantling and defunding every single thing he tried to do.
And honestly, I know almost nobody is interested in drinking Tang and crapping in some adult diapers 86,000 miles from home in zero-G. But space exploration is more like a side effect of a well-fed science research and education program. When we had an arms race and a space race, we also had an education race to produce scientists and engineers to build weapons and technology to send men into orbit. Education means a higher quality of life. Take a look at a place like Liberia where there’s absolutely no education and kids live in shitholes (LITERALLY shitholes – they use the beaches as toilets), snort heroin, eat human flesh, and fight in wars at the age of twelve. Then look at a country like Sweden or Finland, which has excellent education and an overwhelmingly positive quality of life. Here in the USA, we now gravitate between not giving a shit and wanting to completely remove all education, especially science education. And a country with more education not only has a bigger talent pool for jobs more technically advanced than ditch digging, but it means companies who want to attract top talent are going to have an easier time when said employees can send their kids to a decent school. And people with kids tend to want to buy houses in good school districts, which means the prices of those houses goes up, and property taxes are based on home sale price. That’s why you can buy a house for $18,000 in my old home town of Elkhart, Indiana.
So now I’m sad as I watch blurry streaming video of the Discovery tethered to the ISS, knowing it’s pretty much the end of the line for this stuff, at least in my lifetime. Bleah.