ending an era

The final Space Shuttle mission, sts-135, successfully launched and currently flies above. For me, and perhaps most people younger who cared to notice space exploration, the space shuttle has been the definition of “space shot”. Actually, the vast majority of manned space launches of any sort have been Space Shuttle launches.

I’ve got mixed feelings. First, the Shuttle is a mix of aging (read: tested) and cutting edge (read: we just figured out how to the make the tools required) technologies. But at the end of the day, the Shuttle is no safer, statistically, than Apollo. About 2% of the launches end in catastrophic failure, and about 4% of the astronauts who suit up die as a result. It’s probably not a coincidence that the Shuttle was put on NASA’s plate during the Nixon administration, that it was allegedly “designed by committee” (read: the engineers sucked at basic tact and barely got along), that the fraction of parts thrown away each launch would label any airplane as “more disposable than a paper airplane”, and that it’s been described as being a flying u-haul even after considering the aerodynamics. Actually the phrase “flying brick” is more often used when describing its aerodynamics.

Yet even with all of its drawbacks, it was a flying success. The sheer volume of launches was astounding, even if ratcheted far, far down from original expectations. The science it carried out convinced many people (including hardened astronomers) that manned space exploration offers advantages unlike anything else.

And for more than a few young space geeks, the spaceshuttle program symbolized hope that shomehowhumankind is going to survive for a while… perhaps long enough to make it off this rock while we still have a chance. A chance to watch a big machine propel itself off the very planet at a deafening volume while creating an incredible amount of steam.

We all know the score. Being a test pilot is usually considered one of the most 10 dangerous professions anytime some group decides to list them based on some criteria. All astronauts are test pilots, handling things like flying themselves to the launch site as just part of the package.

Of course, our astronauts are all out of a job, so they’ll be going back to being engineers or piloting next decade’s war planes or whatever.

Monday ~ July 11, 2011 by b

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