Personal blatherings warning: I hadn't been among the multitudes watching the countdown or viewing the takeoff on television. For one thing, I don't have cable and there's no television reception in my area, which is mostly a good thing except for moments like this one. For another, I've been madly juggling catching up from four days at Westercon, getting ready for out of town guests, and preparing for Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop next week (and a few other minor tasks, like blog posts and novel revisions).
So Atlantis headed for the skies without me...and only then did I realize what I'd missed. No, missed is not the right word. The Era of The Shuttle will come to an end with or without my attention. For my children and many of my friends, there has never been a time when we as a nation have not had an active space program. But for me there was.
I was in grade school when the Soviets sent up Sputnik, and then Sputnik 2, with Laika the dog. I made my own Hallowe'en costume out of a big balloon, covered with papier-mache and then aluminum foil, with eye holes and antennae; the body was a loose robe of black cloth dotted with stars. I walked down the block going "Beep...beep..." And everyone knew what I was.
For all the anxiety and ruthlessness of the Cold War -- and nobody at least in my family had any illusions that the Space Race was anything but part of it -- it was also a heady time. It may have taken politics and paranoia to catapult the US and the USSR into space, and their motives certainly had more to do with power and prestige and territoriality than dreams, those dreams and sense of wonder, not to mention adventure came along for the ride. It seemed that one impossibility after another were coming true -- A satellite in space! A living being in space -- a dog! a human! A probe to the Moon -- to Venus! to Mars! The Soviets were even talking about sending a manned mission to Mars. For a science and science fiction nut, the prospects were dizzying, intoxicating. I watched as Challenger exploded (I was standing in the living room, ironing) and Feynmann dropped an O-ring into a glass of ice water.
When my younger daughter began elementary school in the early '90s, the school had been without a librarian for decade and since I had library skills, I embarked upon an inventory and fund-raising campaign for new books. One of the books I culled said, "Some day, men may walk on the Moon." Yes, I remembered when that was true, and no, it no longer was. It had happened.
I am thinking of the scene in Babylon 5 in which, paraphrasing loosely, Captain Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) says that the space station is important because some day our aging Sun will make Earth uninhabitable, and unless we find a new home in the stars, Mozart and Lao Tzu and Picasso will be gone forever. I cry every time I re-watch that scene.
Once, we were tied to this small planet. Then we weren't -- we were headed out toward the stars, one orbit and one neighboring planet at a time. And now we -- this nation at least -- aren't any more. Of course, this is not strictly true. China and India, not to mention Taiwan and Brazil, have active space programs, and that's not including the commercial sector. But NASA belonged to all of us, and even if what comes next is even better, I still feel a sense of loss. Or perhaps of the sadness of a fallow time before a new dream arises.
Fly safe, Atlantis, and finish this stage of the journey for us all.