Pieces of NASA in Our Hands

In less than two weeks, the space shuttle, the first reusable Space Transportation System (STS), will undertake the program’s penultimate mission: STS-133. The scheduled date: November 1. The scheduled time: 4:40 p.m. EDT. Launch window: 10 minutes. The place: Pad 39A of the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex. It’s already there getting ready!

When the countdown hits zero, a fundament-shaking roar, releasing enough sonic energy to light a good-sized town, will wash over the Cape. OV-103 Discovery will slowly rise toward orbit and the International Space Station on its 39th and final mission. Within a couple of minutes, Discovery’s velocity will reach a staggering 7700 meters per second and begin orbiting the Earth at 122 nautical miles, as velocity, gravity, and distance become locked in a delicate embrace that leaves the shuttle’s crew falling weightless for eleven days.

On October 30, Lofty Ambitions begins our countdown, too, so that we can be in Cape Canaveral to witness Discovery’s final voyage with an expected crowd of 500,000 fellow NASA nerds, lookie loos, and well-wishers. Anna will be going to the Cape as an officially recognized member of our nation’s fourth estate. We’ll be working on an article for a forthcoming issue of Chapman Magazine. In advocating our request for press credentials to NASA, Public Relations Editor Dennis Arp mentioned Chapman University’s ongoing program to collect NASA-related materials for the archives at Leatherby Libraries. As luck would have it, the first set of NASA artifacts arrived from Houston’s Johnson Space Center just yesterday.

Two large boxes and a smaller, flat box arrived in all their cardboard shipping brown glory and made their way to the library’s fourth-floor conference room. There, Doug—along with the able and enthusiastic support of Dean Charlene Baldwin, Associate Dean Kevin Ross, Special Collection Head Claudia Horn, Archivist Rand Boyd, and Library Systems Technician Amanda Bowers—opened the boxes, dug through snowy-white shipping peanuts, and revealed three display models: a 1/100th scale Space Shuttle, an Orbiting Geophysical Observatory (OGO), and a Nimbus weather satellite.

Rand Boyd and Doug were immediately taken with the original shipping/display cases in which the OGO and Nimbus were sent. Wooden, sheathed in a textured green veneer, and nearly fifty years old, each case contained assembly instructions and torn, yellowed photographs of the models in their demonstration and teaching roles. As Doug opened the boxes, dust, tiny splinters of aging wood, and the aroma of long-term storage wafted out of the cases. If these items were offered on Ebay, the cheeky seller would describe these items as “well loved.” The OGO and Nimbus models will likely need complete restorations. We can’t help but imagine whose—and how many—hands held each of these three replicas. The thought occurred to Doug that the last group of people who used these items on the job are more than likely no longer on the job themselves. It was a momentary reminder of the fragility of our creations, made more relevant by another recent discussion.

Two weeks ago at the North American Aviation Day at Torrance Airport, a former North American wind tunnel engineer relayed to us the unhappy end to the Trisonic wind tunnel. After being gifted to UCLA, the Trisonic was deemed an environmental hazard and torn down in 2009 to make room for a parking lot (as if no environmental irony existed in encouraging more driving here in the home of our nation’s worst traffic). This conversation about the wind tunnel was a reminder that enormous swaths of Southern California’s aviation and aerospace legacy are disappearing. (We’ll have more posts in the future about these historic places.)

Libraries, archives, and museums can’t collect and preserve wind tunnels. But these repositories can collect models, paper, and the remnants of individual and collective experiences.

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