Space Shuttle Atlantis has landed safely. *whew!* I’m getting more nervous about shuttle missions lately. In part, it’s the greater focus on all the things that could go wrong. In part, it’s the realization that you know, the shuttle fleet really is aging.

But mostly, I think it’s the fear that, given reactions to the Columbia disaster, our nation may be only one disaster away from writing off space—or at least humans in space—entirely.

Speaking of Atlantis, the Bad Astronomy posted a fantastic photo by Thierry Legault of the shuttle and the International Space Station passing in front of the sun!

NASA Returns to Flight as Discovery Reaches Orbit.

Rather than getting my hopes up, I’ve been taking an “I’ll believe it when I see it” approach to this. And now, we’re finally back in space!

Here’s hoping the shuttle will be able to tide us over until the next-generation ship is ready. IMO we should have had another type of launch vehicle five years ago at the latest. That way Columbia never would have gone up, or if it had, we could have kept the newer fleet flying and just grounded the shuttles.

On a more personal note, I’m reminded of the time I went to see a shuttle landing. My mom took me and my brother out of school for a day, and we drove up with a family friend to Edwards Air Force Base where we set up camp with a zillion other people on the dry lake bed. We slept in the car, and the next morning everyone tried to get as close as possible to the chain link fence that marked the edge of the public viewing area.

Somewhere in a closet, I’ve still got a roll of slides from that landing. Of course, they had us so far away from the runway that I could barely catch the shuttle with a telephoto lens. I made an 8×10 print of the best slide in my grandfather’s home photo lab, and the shuttle was barely 1½ inches. [Update: I finally scanned the photos.]

And the shuttle that I watched land? It was Discovery, and it was the first flight since the Challenger disaster.

Now if someone can just convince NASA to give Hubble its 120-zillion mile checkup instead of just throwing it away…

Well, the critics have started coming out, claiming that manned space flight isn’t worth the risk and space exploration (at least with human crews) should be written off as a bad idea.

How can you look up at the night sky and not think it’s worth it?

Or is it because so many of us live in cities where you can’t see the stars for the lights and smog?

Are we so afraid to dream?

Are we so afraid to fly?

I’m reminded of a slogan I’ve seen at science-fiction conventions:

The meek shall inherit the earth. The rest of us will go to the stars.


Okay. For all you holier-than-thou smarty-pantses out there, here’s a question. If an average-sized couch cushion were to hit a brick wall at 15 mph, would you think at first glance that the brick wall might be damaged?

I thought not.

So leave me the FUCK alone with your judgmental snippetiness about how YOU would have aborted the launch (let alone how you would have even seen the insulation incident they only saw on video LATER) and how could I even THINK that maybe Mission Control didn’t think they had sufficient reason to effectively waste a large chunk of what little funding they had because “human life was on the line.” Human life is on the line every time you get in your car, but that doesn’t stop normal people from driving to work. (No, I’m not normal. Thanks for asking.) Human life is on the line every time a new medication gets sold to any demographic outside who it was originally tested with, and it’s a hell of a lot more people at risk, with a lot less knowledge of what they’re getting into, than the seven people on board the shuttle. Yes, it was a tragedy. Yes, it was technically preventable. And yes, hindsight is 20/20. So, as I said, get off your high horse. There’s too many of those around lately and it’s getting hard for a good objective fact-finding scientist to breathe.


It’s taken me two days to collect my thoughts enough to write about this. The loss of the orbiter and its crew hit me as a complete shock on Saturday, and I immediately started checking CNN and press releases. On the web. Not on TV. I remembered watching the Challenger footage over and over, and I remembered watching the World Trade Center footage over and over, but I couldn’t bring myself to look this time.

Barely a week ago I had been looking at mission photographs on NASA’s website. I knew the faces of the crewmembers. I had been looking for a photograph they had taken of a rare atmospheric phenomenon which was described in a newspaper article, but which hadn’t been included with the article. I never found it, and figured it would be posted later. Now I wonder if it was actually transmitted.

In the summer of 1992 my family went to Florida. We spent several days at Disney World and several days at Cape Canaveral. Two things that struck me the most were how much the old Mission Control looked like classic Star Trek, and the Astronaut Memorial. On Saturday I pulled out my photo album from that trip, and wondered where the next 7 names would be added.

Once the shock started to wear off, I started wondering about the future of space flight. And that’s when the fear and anger set in. Fear that we might abandon space flight entirely. Anger at a public that no longer cared, at a government that steadily cut support for space exploration.

The shuttle is our only ticket into space right now. The fleet was intended to last a decade or so, but all of the proposed replacements have been shut down as too costly. Can you imagine what would happen if all commercial airplanes were the same model, and an accident could ground the entire fleet for up to two years?

We’re like sailors who only know how to make one kind of boat, and after a few trips to a far-off island have decided not to stray far from shore. We haven’t been to the moon in 30 years. Think about it: 30 years. I’m nearly 27 and no one has set foot on the moon since before I was born.

The one bright spot in all this is that there is talk of renewing our commitment to space. And with that news I’m encouraged to hope that the problem that caused the disaster may be found and resolved in months, not years, that the space station crew may be able to remain on board with new supplies, or at least come home in a more comfortable ship than a Soyuz capsule. This hope may turn out to be in vain, perhaps even on both counts, but I prefer it to the fear.

The Columbia crew has one over on the Challenger crew: they made it into space. Heck, they have two: they completed their mission. I don’t know how much of their data was transmitted back and how much was going to be collected in person. But if I had to choose between dying just before getting into space or just after spending two weeks up there, I know I’d choose the latter.