June 29, 2007

Shuttle Musings

This is from the June 8th Atlantis launch. The remarkable thing about this rather unremarkable shot is the fact that we are on the 528 at the time. The 528 is the toll road that runs straight towards the Kennedy Space Center and Cocoa Beach. We are sitting in bumper to bumper traffic as so many have come out to watch the launch. Yes, we got in the car at the spur of the moment and headed that way to see if we could get a closer view. This is as close as we could get. That remarkable part I was talking about? We are still in Orlando, directly north of Orlando International Airport. Some 40 to 45 miles away!
The shuttle and all things NASA are major news stories here in Central Florida, of course. Almost anytime there is a launch, shuttle or simply another satellite, there is plenty of media coverage. It is definitely gets as much attention as the theme parks get. Now, shuttle launches seem to be news everywhere. There was a time when that was not true.
Back in college, shuttle launches were so routine that no one stopped to watch. But then one day in 1986, that all changed. I had just sat down in Calculus, or as I called it Math as a Second Language, beside John (yeah, "Dubber") when another guy comes in and says did you hear the shuttle blew up? The image on our calculus book coincidentally was that of the shuttle on the launch pad at night. No one really took him seriously. Not until others came in with the same story. After class it was a bee line to any television to find out what had happened.

(Side note: 1986 - Cable still a toddler so the majority of people were watching network news. No internet, so zero information from that source. No cell phones. Some "car phones", those monsters that were just this side of portable, but those were mostly used by law enforcement. Our kids will think we lived in the dark ages...)

My point is that by then there had been some two dozen shuttle launches, and, with all the hundreds of other rocket launches since the sixties, it was no longer "news-worthy". We had conquered space.

(Side note 2: Moonraker came out in 1979, two years before we actually launched the first shuttle. This was 007 meets Star Wars. Worst. Bond. Movie. Ever. But it shows just how much hoopla went into the shuttle program. It is amazing how some 6 years later, we wouldn't care anymore.)

So here we are; 26 years and 2 disasters later. The shuttle is news-worthy, but not in a good way. The shuttles are being shunted. They are old and out-dated. NASA is talking about life after shuttles. So why is everyone watching?
To put it simply, too many cable news networks need to fill airtime and the very inkling of another disaster makes them drool like Pavlov's dog near a fire alarm's bell. Several minutes were spent showing the super slo-mo of the launch and how foam may have hit the shuttle. Several more minutes spent on the "blanket" and how it would affect re-entry. Showing (with scale models) what the crew would have to do to fix it. Then several minutes detailing how far away a storm could be to where the shuttle would land. (34 miles in most cases, 32 miles in others. Seems to me to be cautionary, just go with 35...)
Anyway for better or worse, the shuttles primarily and NASA peripherally, are news. At least it's better than another blurb about Paris Hilton...


Dubber said...

I so remember that just as you described it. The shuttle being on our textbook and being in that class at that time just made it all the more surreal. I was dating Meghan at the time, so I remember going over to her house after class, just sitting at her kitchen table kinda dumbfounded. What's really strange is that I was listening to the St. Elmo's Fire soundtrack a lot then and for whatever reason, developed an association between the event and this song. I know, just another weird manifestation of my synesthesia.

Hmmmm... come to think of it, maybe the trauma of the event is why Mr. Math gave out pity C's (or at least he gave me one--I still don't know a lick of calculus).

By the way, doesn't 528 run into my parkway there in Orlando? ;)

Scott said...

That entire class was surreal. I thought you at least knew what you were doing in there. I should have copied off someone else's tests.

Maybe it was because news didn't travel as fast as now, but this event was everywhere for a long time. Up to a month later, we were all still talking about it and it was still the lead story most of the time on the news. Also, there was a civilian involved - a teacher no less.
Contrast that to the Columbia in a post 9/11 world. We were on to other things quickly. And even though I know I was in NOLA at the time, I cannot tell you specifically what I was doing at that moment.

And yes, your parkway runs north/south while the 528 runs east/west. I cross your parkway, or even drive on it sometimes, every time I go to work. And yes, I think about you EVERY TIME! I'll stop there before someone wonders about our sexual orientation. Love you, man, but not that way... ;)

Dubber said...


See, I remember Columbia vividly. We were at the Target in Chesterfield (for those familiar with the greater St. Louis area) and somebody mentioned it while we were at the checkout. Flipped on the TV as soon as we got home. I basically did nothing but watch for the next two days. Maybe because it was over Texas or because they were basing the event investigation at Barksdale, but it seemed more "personal." They would show where they found a piece of Columbia (or worse, a crew helmet) and it seemed familiar... but then all of east Texas looks alike.

Scott said...

Ooh! I forgot one other musing!
At KSC they just opened a shuttle launch experience. It's a simulator ride giving all au non-astronauts a chance to see what it's like to launch.

Yeah, JUST OPENED. All the while getting ready to cease shuttle operations. Brilliant planning.

Dubber said...

Our tax dollars at work. Genius. Pure genius, I tell ya. As in Wily E. Coyote genius.

Kelley said...

So, I'm behind the times. I didn't know NASA was talking about life past shuttles.

I was entranced by the shuttle launch we caught when we were in Florida a couple of years ago. I have a picture of us standing like a mile from the pad the day before it launched(my dad has connections, I guess, so FUN!). When I lived in Satellite Beach, we'd go watch night missile launches whenever we could. There is nothing that compares, really.

I was in 10th grade in 1986, having biology class with my totally dreamy teacher. I vividly remember the jerky, sexist, sleezy Chemistry teacher bursting in the back door of the classroom to tell us about the explosion. It was the kind of thing he'd joke about, so we didn't believe him at first. Was that really 21 years ago? Good grief.