Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Journey to Atlantis
I've only seen it a few times, but the sight of the iconic cavernous building always makes my heart race. But this time even more so, as it meant the end of a race against the clock. We had reached our position for the big event with just minutes to go.
Attempting to be speedy but efficient, I assembled the fancy digital SLR rig atop my tripod. Except it wouldn't work. Removing the tele-extender restored autofocus (in retrospect, probably applying another newton of force would have too) and then I got the camera in the wrong shutter mode -- timer instead of multi-fire. A cheer rises from the crowd and the dark smudge to the left of the building emits a shape trailing a brilliant blaze of red-orange, a color which no photograph seems to capture remotely well. Below that is a growing, intricately braided cloud of smoke. I don't get my camera remotely under control until it is tilted about 45 degrees, and only then do I realize that in my fumbling I had it at minimum zoom! A photographic opportunity dreamed about for nearly a quarter century almost utterly botched! The crowd's sound builds again as the rumble of the engines finally reaches us.
But, I was there. We all were -- TNG will remember it for his entire lifetime. Atlantis punched right through a cloud (don't believe the reports of a cloudless sky!) and soared. All too quickly it was out of sight, leaving for many minutes the detailed smoke tail.
Our plans had been too optimistic, trying to squeeze the trip in with minimal disruption of other schedules, plus a final hesitancy to pull the trigger on plane tickets. What seemed like a plan with a little room for delay was undone by a rental car company that apparently stocks the break room with Protoslo and a traffic jam stretching from Orlando International Airport to the Cape.
I grew up with Apollo. I remember the last moon launches and moon walks. I do not remember the early manned Apollo missions, though I was technically around for all of them. Indeed, it is a great disappointment to me that none of those who could remember can remember if I was toddling in front of the TV when Neil Armstrong made his first steps. I devoured all the books in the school library and then the public library on space and watched many an early shuttle launch and landing (we had a school assembly for the 1st landing!). I remember precisely what I was doing when the news of Challenger's loss came & again with Columbia. I sometimes dreamed of being an astronaut, though never enough to force my academic path in that direction -- but I certainly spent more than a few times in bed before going to sleep as a kid on my back with my knees bent, imagining what liftoff must feel like (I still sometimes close my eyes on airplane takeoffs to try to return to those youthful fantasies). But I had never seen a launch. There are the near-mythical VIP tickets my family once had for a payload my father worked on, but that would have launched in May 1986. After the Challenger-imposed hiatus, somehow we didn't get the tickets again.
When I announced to some of my co-workers that I might try to go for this launch, I got a lot of support. That camera was a very generous loan from one colleague. But the most interesting reaction was the number of individuals who were shocked that the shuttle program was coming to an end. "What do you mean the third to last flight?". And it hit me -- for many of these folks, the shuttle IS the manned space program simply because it is older than they are.
I have a complex love for the shuttle program. It is one of the most amazing devices ever realized from human imagination. It is capable of so much and has contributed so many wonderful images. But it is also a mishmash of design requirements, resulting in a tool not optimal for any task and a design which has proven deadly twice and nearly so on other occasions. The shuttle also sucked so much post-Apollo, post-Vietnam funding that could have gone into some spectacular unmanned missions.
But now I have finally seen a launch. It is spectacular, and I am hungry for more. Alas, I wasted my youth in not making plans and now have that laundry list of responsibilities which come with adulthood. We were lucky that the launch occurred precisely on schedule; too few have stuck to their assigned time. I probably won't be able to do better than a giant screen TV for the last two -- you do get a better view, but it just isn't the same. But you can bet I'll be cross-referencing future vacations against unmanned launch schedules.
Of course, if anyone has some VIP tickets they aren't using, I won't claim I would resist temptation...