Last Chance to See (Part 19)

There is one reason for caring, and I believe no other is necessary. […] And it is simply this: the world would be a poorer, darker, lonelier place without them. ~ Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine, Last Chance to See

Okay, you’re wondering now, what to do, now you know this is the end. And you know this because Lofty Ambitions can’t pass up the chance to end this series on a prime number, something divisible by only itself and one.

We named this series “Last Chance to See” after the book by the same name by Douglas Adams (also author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy et al.) and zoologist Mark Carwardine. That book “is about a series of journeys [that team took] to look for some of the world’s rarest and endangered animals.”

Of course, the space shuttle has always been among the rarest of machines. Only six shuttles were built, and one of those was never intended to reach space. Instead, Enterprise was destined to spend its useful life as a test article, repeatedly dropping through the clear, blue California desert sky. While shuttle missions might have seemed, at times over the last three decades, mundane, 135 missions, two of which were not completed successfully, really isn’t that many journeys. By comparison, O’Hare airport can land 112 aircraft in a single hour.  If the shuttle had been merely a workhorse, that number of journeys would be the equivalent of commuting to work every day for less than four months. Unless, obviously, you measure the shuttle’s commute in miles instead of roundtrips. Then, it’s a very long way.

 Only three orbiters—Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis—remain. They are, in fact, all but extinct, no longer fit for their intended purpose and soon to be placed on display at museums. Even as we write this, Endeavour is having its Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pods, those bulbous protrusions near the shuttle’s empennage, removed. We saw Endeavour already undergoing such refitting (or unfitting).

Each chapter of the book Last Chance to See, though, is as much about the travels and travails as it is about the animal itself. Likewise, our series about the end of the space shuttle program is as much about the ideas and people (including us) as it is about the machine.

Of course, the book Last Chance to See is about endangered species. We do not want to create a false equivalence between a host of endangered animals and the thirty-year shuttle program. Rather, we wanted that work and Adams’s other tomes to serve as touchstones for ideas and the way we talk about things. We started each post in our series with a quote from Adams as a trigger for some of the things we wanted to say about a different subject than they had tackled.

Adams and Carwardine point out, “Extinctions, of course, have been happening for millions of years: animals and plants were disappearing long before people arrived on the scene. But what has changed is the extinction rate.” Our most recent guest blogger, Omar Izquierdo, says something similar: “Good things start and good things end, and the shuttle isn’t an exception.” But what has changed for him and for others on the Space Coast is that the now-indefinite waiting is a new state of affairs; the time between shuttle launches can no longer be “simply prep time.”

Alligator at KSC, just swimming around with the tourists

But endangered species are not completely beside the point on the Space Coast. Across the river from Titusville, where we stayed during our trips to Florida, lies both Kennedy Space Center and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. From the pristine stretch of beach, where languorous cranes and pelicans and the occasional eagle drift overhead, and children bend and peer at the wire grids that protect recently lain sea turtle eggs, you can see launch pad 39A, the spot that launched the Apollo and space shuttle missions. At the launch pad, two alligators, their snouts poking through brackish marsh water and leading to vigilant eyes, live in the very small roadside pond.

One day, we drove across Titusville’s sweeping new bridge to catch a peek at the manatees from the observation deck. Manatees are difficult to see, huge dark blobs rolling occasionally to the water’s surface. The skin on our arms and legs, a blood-dappled, welted welter of mosquito success evinced that the suddenly obvious eighty species of mosquitoes, with genus names like Aedes, Anopheles, Culex, Deinocerities, and many more, are perhaps the least endangered species in Florida. (One wide-spread Florida mosquito has the apt genus species name of Aedes vexans—vexed us indeed!). Another day, we drove over to the beach, pausing for turtle after turtle crossing the road.

Bird in nest outside the KSC Press Center

Some people might argue that space exploration is important enough to overrun the natural landscape in the name of progress. Others might argue that technology should get out of that natural habitat entirely. Neither seems plausible or, at this point, necessary. In fact, after observing the beach town development sprawl of Cocoa Beach, it strikes us that the presence of NASA and the federal government likely had a direct influence on preserving the flora and fauna of Merritt Island. The Space Coast is a place where nature and technology abut each other and have discovered how to coexist.

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