Last Chance to See (Part 17)

They even have a different vocabulary. When you spend much time on islands with naturalists, you will tend to hear two words in particular an awful lot: endemic and exotic. Three, if you count disaster.

An endemic species of plant or animal is one that is native to an island or region and is found nowhere else at all. An exotic species is one that has been introduced from abroad, and a disaster is usually what results when this occurs.

~Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine, Last Chance to See

Earlier today, Atlantis landed, thereby ending the last-ever space shuttle mission. What are we thinking? And by that, we mean both “what is America thinking?” and also “what are our thoughts on this historic event?”

One of the things we’ve noticed about the way those closest to the space shuttle program refer to this moment, or this accumulation of moments that mark the program’s end, is that they use shuttle as a conceptual noun. For the media, or when the media discusses the situation, people use phrasing like “the end of the space shuttle program” or “the end of an era.” That’s what you’d expect. But if you go back and read our most recent guest blogger’s post, you’ll notice that Omar Izquierdo uses the phrase “end of shuttle.” No article. Instead, shuttle is used like liberty, an idea more than a physical object. That’s typical idiom among those who’ve worked on shuttle. Shuttle is the way they live and think about life, as well as the orbiter-become-artifact.

During the past few weeks, the seemingly sudden realization that the space shuttle program is in its denouement has engendered an explosion of interest around the world, as represented by our calls from the BBC for content, the foreign nationals in the post-launch and post-landing news conferences, and the thousands of tweets on the subject over several hours last night. The last two weeks has seen an array of reporting on the shuttle program by journalists and bloggers well beyond the space-geek crowd. Indeed, public conversations have bubbled up about all things related to the entirety of the American space program. The Lofty duo follows a wide range of space-related media resources, and in addition to their own work on the shuttle program, we have provided several links to stories in those media channels that don’t make covering the shuttle program part of their regular fare. If you Googled “shuttle Atlantis landing” this morning and limited your search to “News,” up popped thousands of pieces just from the last couple of days.

A number of these stories, both those in the space-oriented venues and in the mainstream, have taken on the task of critiquing the shuttle program, and by extension human space travel, in order to arrive at some authoritative statement: either A or B. One assertion is that the shuttle program, though flawed and failing to line up to its mid-1970’s marketing claims of safety, reliability, frequency, and cheapness, was an amazing machine that did an exemplary job under the circumstances, which included constantly shifting priorities during development and lack of adequate funding. The other assertion is that the shuttle program was a disastrous boondoggle. Worse than that, people died, it consumed ridiculous amounts of resources, and it fell demonstrably short on wide swaths of its performance goals. Comment threads are especially likely to include back-and-forth between these two types of critiques.

Oddly, reports from both sides of this  argument’s coin often contain the same list of facts and accomplishments. Both sides often point to Hubble Telescope repairs and building the International Space Station (ISS). When the critiques use the ISS as a supporting example, the ISS is described either as a shining example of collaboration between former enemies and an important contribution to science or as a low-earth-orbiting white elephant, a showpiece forever draining away funds from earthbound science.

Cost, of course, is part of these critiques as well. The total cost of the space shuttle program over the decades comes in somewhere around $200B in 2010 dollars. Supporters and detractors each wield that very same number with relative ease in a coup de grace for their argument. It’s even more shocking that both sides are absolutely correct. Either that’s pretty darn cheap, given the accomplishments of the program, including spin-off technologies now improving the lives of Americans here on Earth, or that’s an exorbitant amount of money that could be better spent elsewhere, especially given the current economy.

Today, these critiques seem off the mark. Today—the day after the anniversary of humankind’s first step onto the lunar surface (July 20 on the East Coast, July 21 UTC) and the day the last shuttle mission ended—strikes us as about the people, not about the machine. Margaret Lazarus Dean, another recent guest blogger and space-geek, bought a last-minute airline ticket for a 24-hour visit to Kennedy Space Center for this morning’s landing. She, with the media and VIPs, was at KSC Runway 15 for the touchdown. She saw the chutes deploy and the wheels come to a stop. But she didn’t get choked up then. Neither did Anna, as she watched those moments on NASA-TV. Sure, Anna felt some pain in her chest, something already trying to form itself into nostalgia. But the unfolding process of de-orbit burn, roll reversals, and the final turn to the runway is dramatic, even on a computer screen. Seeing a landing is exciting.

Margaret stuck around for several hours after the landing, and KSC had events planned well into the afternoon. After a long nap, Anna watched the replays on NASA-TV, especially captivated by the news briefings, first with the STS-135 crew (see our post on the crew HERE) and then with the NASA administrators and managers, including Mike Moses and Mike Leinbach with whom we’ve seen several news briefings in person this past year. The thrill of the landing itself, with the night-goggled approach, had become a memory quickly, but seeing the people, imagining the hubbub of the day, made us sad to not be there.

Margaret wrote in her email message, “The surrounding events were more awesome than the landing.” Those surrounding events, of course, were about the people and about celebrating their hard work, perhaps even their belief in what they were doing over the years, even those whose jobs end tomorrow. No matter what a person thinks about the program and the machines, the critiques should pause to take into account that thousands of real people are involved too. The Lofty duo saw hordes of these people, both the STS-135 crew and regular employees there every day, when Atlantis was towed—rollover—from the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) on the way to its last mission.

Margaret Lazarus Dean, along with some others there for today’s events, wrote that she did get choked up, but it was hours after landing. As the last fully functioning orbiter was towed from the landing strip to the OPF 2, which Discovery had only recently vacated, KSC employees—those most intimately connected with the program and with the orbiters—walked with Atlantis, in Margaret’s words, “as slow as a funeral procession.”

Today is about shuttle, not about the shuttle.

Photo by Bill Ingalls, NASA

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