I visited Kennedy Space Center on New Years Day. The last time I stepped foot near the space beach? Maybe, 34 years ago. It’s one of my fondest childhood memories. I grew up loving the space program. Watching the launches on television. Seeing the giant crawler slowly making its way toward the pad. Feeling awe as the smoke billowed and the rockets soared to the heavens. Biting my lip nervously as the shuttle touched back down again. I love the quote, “One small step for man, one giant leap for man kind.” I was a Star Wars kid. I dreamed of hyperdrives and making the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs, a unit of distance and not speed.
On your approach over the bridge to the center, you see the rockets and launchers spiraling toward the blue skies. It’s the legacy from Kennedy’s Go to the Moon speech, and you can see the technical progress. The used up rockets getting bigger and bigger. Part of me wonders, how did we launch these relics into the sky, land on the moon, and then come back again? There has never been a program quite like Apollo. And, perhaps, there will never be again. It’s a tribute of why we dare to be great.
But what do I remember most about this trip? It wasn’t the aging rockets sitting in the Florida sun, replicas of the Mars Rover, or famed pictures from Hubble. It was the shuttle Atlantis. Part of the STS program (Shuttle Transportation System), it was the fourth operational shuttle and flew for the first time in October, 1985. By the end of its last mission, Atlantis had orbited the Earth a total of 4,848 times, traveling nearly 126,000,000 mi (203,000,000 km) or more than 525 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon.
One could argue that the STS program wasn’t a success. It wasn’t as daring as the Apollo program, had tremendous cost overruns, and there were more than a few engineering challenges. When I was home sick from school, I remember Challenger exploding shortly after launch. It was a harrowing reminder of setbacks can happen. It still saddens me today. Then, Columbia effectively ended the program (yes, there were more successful launches afterwards) after it broke during re-entry. The astronaut memorial inside the museum is a reminder of the risks we take to boldly going to where no man has gone before.
Yet, the shuttle’s shadow dwarfs the center. Before seeing the shuttle, you watch a video talking about the design points. This was a machine built to launch up-right, orbit the earth, glide into re-entry, and then land like a plane. To top it off, this was a repeatable process. Nothing had been built like this before.
After watching the short overview on design principles, you walk into a hanger with an immense movie screen. It’s circular, wrapping you up like a blanket and placing you on Space Beach. The stars twinkle. The countdown begins. You see the shuttle launch into the sky. Then, the screen curtain pulls back.
Atlantis takes a bow.
I’ve never seen anything like this up close before. It’s a true feat of engineering and hard to fathom it was even built. Yes, it exists. The United States of America built this. I suppose only in America could we conceive and will this to fly. Yes, it’s been copied, but never successfully launched anywhere else in the world.
I was in awe of the size. You could see the immense mechanical arm built to launch satellites (the final mission was to repair the Hubble telescope). The individual tiles were in full view, a reminder of the dangers of space travel.
I probably walked around the ship two times before reaching for my camera. It’s an amazing feat. Seeing this, I know why, we as a nation, push the boundaries of what is next. And one has to wonder why we haven’t continued to push boldly. We don’t talk about this innovation enough. Instead, we debate about haves and haves not, budget overruns, and the demons on both sides of the aisle. After inauguration, every President should visit the Space Center and see our innovation up close. Write it into Constitution because television doesn’t do this justice. Leadership needs to push us to new frontiers.
Yes, we should continue to dare to be great.
Nasa and Security
There has always been a bit of copying in the space race. The Buran launched once but the program faltered after the Soviet dissolution.
However, NASA has been the subject of many high-profile security breaches through the years. Note, the most recent. And the Chinese have been amping up their program both in terms of funding and projects. Notice anything familiar about this rover? And many of their future ships look eerily similar to Project Orion.
It’s challenging to measure the success of an outgoing administration until many years later. However, cyber security (or lack of) maybe the biggest knowledge and wealth transfer in world history. Something to think about.