Merritt Island, Florida
My seven-year-old son, Cliff, watched the last space shuttle launch from the NASA viewing stands at the Kennedy Space Center. He had a spiritual experience of a kind that no amount of dragging him to Mass or even Fenway Park has inspired. His little face—seemingly made up entirely of open eyes—announced it: “This is awe!” He didn’t need to say anything and, having forgotten to breathe, he probably couldn’t. Indeed, for the first waking moment in his 89 months on earth, he was silent.
The swooped delta of the Atlantis shuttle with its orange gothic squid of a liquid fuel tank and its twin column, party hat-topped solid-fuel boosters—the “full stack” as it’s called—is three-and-a-half miles away but looms nonetheless. Perching on its launcher it is as tall as a 25-story building. There’s a flash below the engine nozzles. A fiery glory pours out on every side. A few seconds later comes the joyful noise, a trumpeting so powerful that the decibels will kill you if you’re closer than 800 feet.
My eyes were as wide as my son’s, but, unlike him, I was babbling as if I were a blind, deaf, and dumb man miraculously cured: “This is light!” “This is sound!ˆ”
The full stack stands almost still, trembling with the strength of 6,825,704 foot-pounds of thrust. Then it is risen—ascending on a tower of smoke with the slow majesty befitting 2,030 tons of wondrous engineering. The Atlantis, still joined to its external tank and boosters, rolls gracefully onto its back, embracing the heavens now instead of the Earth, and traces an arc as grand as the curve of the space-time continuum. Then it disappears into the layer of stratocumulus that had been threatening for three days to scrub the launch.
Cliff made a small noise of protest. With a child’s love of things coming apart, he’d wanted to see the solid boosters detach and fall into the ocean. But there was a better show. Rocket smoke cast a scything shadow out to the horizon across the cloud tops while at the launch site smoke still stood, vertical, immense, and undissipating. “He took not away the pillar of cloud by day.”
And He didn’t. Congress and the White House did. Since the end of the countdown about two minutes had passed, which seemed like an era, and it was—the end of an era. That’s that for the NASA shuttle program and maybe for the whole idea of U.S. manned space exploration.
We used to have presidents who liked to send Americans places—Iraq, Afghanistan, the Moon, or Mars. But George W. Bush’s NASA Constellation program has been canceled. Its gigantic Ares V rocket is off the drawing board. The Constellation’s Orion flight capsule has been renamed, in a telling translation into GovSpeak, MPCV—“Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.” What the multiple purposes are supposed to be is anyone’s guess. At the moment the only way NASA can get a person into space is by paying Vladmir Putin for a ride on the creaky old Soyuz. Looks like the Russians won the space race after all. Meanwhile America’s government has not funded, or even proposed, anywhere new for people to go beyond low Earth orbit. Never mind that the observable universe is 92 billion light years across and would seem to offer ample travel opportunities.
In a rare outburst of bureaucratic blunt truth, Michael Leinbach, the Atlantis launch director, told colleagues at the Kennedy Space Center, “We’re all victims of poor policy out of Washington. . . . I’m embarrassed that we don’t have better guidance.”
On the trip to Florida I explained America’s space exploration to Cliff as well as I could. In a sense he understands better than I do. To him space travel is not an extraordinary phenomenon but a long-standing historical movement, an inevitability in the course of human affairs. It’s what the discovery and settlement of the American West was to me when I was his age, before Manifest Destiny was insulted in grade schools.
Cliff’s reaction to the news that America will now lack a manned spaceship was like hearing from Miss Sonnenberg, my second grade teacher, that America had stopped with the Louisiana Purchase; there was no war with Mexico, and the heck with Texas and California.
Cliff and I went to the shuttle launch through the good offices of our friend G. Ryan Faith, research analyst at the Space Foundation, a nonprofit that brings together everyone involved in space exploration—civilians, the military, commercial entrepreneurs, and government space agencies from around the world. I think aliens from Area 51 in Nevada would be welcome if they existed. One purpose of the foundation is to build understanding, support, and enthusiasm for what would be the coolest thing in the world except all sorts of other worlds are involved so it’s even cooler than that.