If loyal readers of this series of missives have learned anything, and I like to think that they have, it’s that I am a witty, charming, caring and talented fellow. If they have learned two things, it’s that I am a witty, charming, caring and talent fellow who is also a gigantic nerd.
I got to be all nerdy again last night with an assist from kind people at NASA, themselves probably not strangers to nerdy behavior. Yesterday morning I read that NASA would be launching a satellite filled rocket from a facility just off the coast of Virginia. That’s interesting enough, but even better though, the launch was going to be visible as far west as the Mississippi River.
I grew up with the one-two punch of Star Wars and the NASA Shuttle program. I very clearly remember when the Enterprise was doing its landing tests, strapped to the back of a 747 and dropped over the desert to see if it could get down without crashing. I had an entire wall that was a photographic mural of the Columbia on approach. I remember where I was when the Challenger and the Columbia were destroyed. For a kid who wanted to be a Jedi Knight, the idea that we were actively going into space and doing things was very exciting. The Shuttle was the first step towards an X-Wing.
When the Shuttle program ended with no manned mission follow ups in the pipeline, I was profoundly disappointed. I’ve resigned myself to the fact I will never get to blow up a Death Star (or two) but for the United States of America to not be travelling to the stars seems completely wrong. We are a nation founded on exploration. Across the ocean and then across the mountains and then across continent to the sea. We travel forward, that’s what we do. Space is where we should be travelling now. The JPL people are doing amazing work with the Mars Rover and a surprising variety of unmanned spacecraft. I just wish we were still figuring out how to send people out there.
In any case, at 7:30 last night the boys, C and I got on to the NASA website and listened to the audio of the countdown. Along with the audio was video of the command center. It was basically just a bunch of people sitting at computers going through a series of pre-launch checks but T2 was fascinated by the fact we could “spy” on them.
At T-Minus one minute and counting we went out on our back deck and looked in the direction that my phone told me was south east. And waited. It was cold. T1 was in shorts and a t-shirt and wrapped in a blanket. Everyone else was dressed sensibly. About 45 seconds past, all of us standing quietly in the dark staring off into the night sky.
“Well,” I said, trying not to sound all disappointed, “I guess it was too cloudy for us to see. We can head back in.”
“There it is,” yelled C.
A tiny rocket shaped light appeared on the horizon, streaking upwards, clear as it could be. Right after it appeared it flashed bright red.
“Did it explode?” asked T2.
“No,” I explained, “it’s just blowing off parts of itself it doesn’t need. It’ll do it again in just a bit.”
About two minutes later, now high in the sky, the red flash repeated and the rocket vanished from view.
“That was actually really cool,” said C.
“Yeah,” agreed the boys. T2 went back inside and watched mission control on the computer for another fifteen minutes. T1 asked a handful of questions about how fast it was going and what it was going to do when it got up there.
Other than on television, none of us had ever seen anything travel up into space before. It was strangely moving.
I’m glad we did it.