Sunday, May 10, 2009

Savor the awe of these last shuttle launches

Editor's Note: My new space column runs Monday in the FLORIDA TODAY newspaper, but you'll be able to see it here early on Sundays. Read to the end for links to the first two columns and readers' comments. Thanks, and please click comment below to weigh in or e-mail me at jkelly@floridatoday.com.

We toss around words like awesome too easily these days.

Few things truly inspire awe. Easily, the most incredible thing I've ever seen is the birth of my five children. Nothing can compare.

But, if I were making a list of the greatest things I've seen, the launch of a space shuttle would be near the top. I've seen 15. The sense of amazement, fear and pride in country and humankind hasn't faded. It still gives me goosebumps to watch that big spaceship roar up, out over the sea.

Monday, if all goes well, a team of thousands of men and women across the country will see the fruition of years of labor when they blast a 4.5-million pound spaceship off planet Earth bound for a daring mission to repair a cosmic time machine known as Hubble Space Telescope. Could there anything cooler going on anywhere?

I was born two years after the first moon landing. I can only relive it through the stories of people who lived it; many now are neighbors and friends.

My fascination with space flight was tied up in the shuttle. I remember watching video of Columbia's maiden launch in the lunch room at Oakview Elementary in Kettering, Ohio. I was forever enamored with anything I could read or learn about the space shuttle.

Seven years ago, I was blessed with the chance to move to Florida to report on the space program. I remember being bummed that I barely missed the launch of STS-111 that June by a few days.

That was a good thing. I would not have appreciated the launch of Atlantis a few months later had I had not spent the next few months learning.

I got to see two orbiters up close. I met people responsible for the care and feeding of the orbiters from landing to the next launch.

I got to peek inside the guts of the shuttles, marveling at the snaking cables and pipes and bewildered by the millions of things that have to work just right every single time.

I learned the painstaking perfection that goes into crafting thousands of heat-shielding tiles, stacking solid rocket boosters, putting the monstrous pieces together on a mobile launch platform and moving it out to the launch pad.

That appreciation and respect brings a special intensity to the sights, sounds and feelings of launch day. I shake my head in wonder at the teamwork necessary. It’s like coaching a team to the Super Bowl, every few months.

That's why I always like seeing that big smile from launch director Mike Leinbach after each successful liftoff. He and his colleagues know how hard it is. Agony is always one mistake away.

It's our job to write about what they do, and ask them hard questions about how they deal with safety issues and spend your money. That doesn't mean we don't respect the job they do getting a crew to orbit and back home safe.

It's easy to take the shuttle for granted. We've seen it so many times here. It may start to look routine. It's not. Flight after flight, the space shuttle is one of the most amazing things men and women have ever done.

Enjoy it. Take advantage of the blessing of living here on the Space Coast. Take in the launch, celebrate a little and remember to congratulate your friends and neighbors who make it all happen.

See John's past space columns:
  • Last week: Budget won't include funds to extend shuttle.
  • Two weeks ago: Please, don't rush this job.
  • 21 comments:

    Anonymous said...

    I TOTALLY AGREE! ITS STUPID THAT OUR GOVERNMENT IS GOING TO RETIRE THEM... EVERYONE NEEDS TO SPEAK UP NOW!!!!!!!!!!! AND SUPPORT AND CONTINUE THE SPACE SHUTTLE FLIGHTS BEYOND 2010!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Anonymous said...

    Sorry, but I don't savor them. The beach and the wildlife refuge were just closed for a beautiful Mother's day weekend. If they don't launch by Wednesday, another Memorial day weekend could be launched. The next shuttle is scheduled for father's day weekend. July 4th and labor day have seen this happen. Sorry, but everyone looks at this thing through their own perspective, and mine is that it impacts my recreation time and it's costing me, as a taxpayer, an absolute fortune.

    The shuttle can't go away soon enough.

    Anonymous said...

    Yikes! Wonder what your house is worth now vs. what it will be worth once 3,000 or 5,000 or 10,000 jobs are lost in the north part of the county? Wonder how you'd feel if someone said, "I can't wait until your job goes away?"

    Anonymous said...

    you're lucky you get to use that property there were talks of closing it when they revamp for next launch vehicle! what an ignorant, selfish, thing to say that poor you unable to go to the beach.

    A Kewl Dood said...

    This dude looks like Sulu ! Wow..

    > Wonder how you'd feel if someone said, "I can't wait until your job goes away?"

    No vehicle design in history has lasted, can last, or will last forever. So sorry for yours and others' luck, but it's not like you've had no warning. Unlike many, many others loosing jobs this year. Spend your energies networking and looking for alternatives instead of complaining.

    Anonymous said...

    No they cannot last forever ,yes they are dangerous by design , however .So was Magellans ship ,they went anyway .When we do not at least keep them on standby with a couple spare tanks for a manned emergency until this "new" mystery Rocket shows up we will rue the day .
    Its as much or more about a minimum capability as jobs.

    Anonymous said...

    Funny, my job has nothing to do with the space program. Funny how NASA nerds think they are responsible for this county's economy. Don't let the door kick you on the way out, or maybe you can launch yourself to the moon...and stay there.

    Anonymous said...

    Greetings Mr. Kelly,

    Your awe at a shuttle launch couldn't have been described better. I have only seen three -- the last one last summer (2008)from a spot just off Hwy 528 right before the Bennett Causeway -- far south of KSC. Though I was miles away and it took forever for 'any' sound to reach that distance -- the sky conditions were picture perfect -- as the launch was.

    It is always good to get to read your reporting of the NASA launch enterprise that operates out of KSC. I first came to appreciate the quality of your reporting back after the Challenger tragedy -- when you finally convinced me that it was a block of foam -- and not a chunk of ice -- that still had the momentum and "impulse" to punch through the leading edge of the Challenger's left wing. That others couldn't immediately and viserally see the high probability of serious damage from the video imagery of the foam strike still flabergasts me.

    I now look forward to your reporting on how various new applications of robotic and telerobotic processes and procedures at KSC, in orbit, and on the Moon and Mars, will make the next generation of US-based launch operations and services cost 1/4th to 1/2 or less what the grossly over-advertised shuttle-based launch services have cost us all these many years.

    To close on a positive note this wonderful STS-125 launch day -- our wish for you and yours is that you "live long and prosper!"

    Anonymous said...

    We used to have a Manned Space Exploration Program before Ronald Reagan turned it into a Weapons System / Glorified Socialist Welfare Program for Defense Contractors.

    Just like everything else the Republicans touch, after they make their billions it goes right down the drain.

    Thanks Republicans for the wonderful Space Program and the cutting edge Educational systems and the Medical Coverage and the great Roads and Bridges..... Hek-of-a-job-Brownie!

    Anonymous said...

    First off Columbia was the shuttle that had it's wing damaged not Chalenger.

    Second - NASA is not a jobs program. You don't contnue to pump money into it just to keep a few people employeed. And yes I have friends and family who work there. There is always a lull between major projects like the shuttle and whatever comes next. You can't simply throw a switch when you go home on Friday and start a new project the following Monday. The shuttle has out lived it's expected live span already and needs to be retired so we can move on to the next phase in our space exploration.

    Anonymous said...

    I lived in the Space Coast for a few years and am still in awe everytime I watch a launch. Though today, I had to watch it from my workstation here in Denver, I think this is something that most people take for granted. Cherish them while you can because when they are gone, you won't see another.

    Anonymous said...

    I have been born and raised in the shuttle progam. At 40 years old I hate to see her go, but I know it is time for us to move on to bigger and better things. I hate the thought of what loosing this program may do in the short-term to my life and most of Brevard for that matter, but we must let her go in order to grow.

    Anonymous said...

    Boy is this a stupid comment. What weapons does the space shuttle carry.
    You need to get your head out of your 4th point of contact and face reality.
    "We used to have a Manned Space Exploration Program before Ronald Reagan turned it into a Weapons System / Glorified Socialist Welfare Program for Defense Contractors.

    Just like everything else the Republicans touch, after they make their billions it goes right down the drain.

    Thanks Republicans for the wonderful Space Program and the cutting edge Educational systems and the Medical Coverage and the great Roads and Bridges..... Hek-of-a-job-Brownie!"

    What weapons does the space shuttle carry?
    You need to get your head out of your 4th point of contact and face reality.

    lady_mountaineer said...

    "Funny, my job has nothing to do with the space program. "

    You may think it's funny now, but whether or not your job has anything to do with the space program, if you live in Brevard County, you will be directly impacted by the economic blow that will result when the Shuttle program comes to an end. I grew up in a one-industry area. When that industry fails, EVERYONE suffers, regardless of whether they are employed in it or not. The thousands of employees at KSC pump money into our local economy. When/if they are gone, every single business in the area will be affected. And if you think home prices are bad now, just wait.

    "You don't contnue to pump money into it just to keep a few people employeed."

    NASA employs over 17,000 people nationwide, and that's just its own employees. I doubt anyone has made a count of the total number of contract employees, but it's got to be many times that number.

    Anonymous said...

    We used to have a Manned Space Exploration Program before Ronald Reagan turned it into a Weapons System / Glorified Socialist Welfare Program for Defense Contractors.

    Just like everything else the Republicans touch, after they make their billions it goes right down the drain.

    Thanks Republicans for the wonderful Space Program and the cutting edge Educational systems and the Medical Coverage and the great Roads and Bridges..... Hek-of-a-job-Brownie!

    Anonymous said...

    Keeping the shuttle alive would be absurd. It would cost, what, $2-3B a year? And that gets you 10,000-15,000 jobs? For two or three measley flights per year? That the Russians will charge, what, $50M a flight? Do the math. Then take the 10,000-15,000 people and give them something useful and productive to do, rather than spending millions of manhours checking those dopey tiles that would never exist in the first place if they had designed a capsule instead of the ridiculous glider. The opportunity cost of what could have been accomplished over the past thirty years, given the money spent, is staggering. But no - people blog here that we should keep paying the salaries even if it's for thumb twiddling.

    Anonymous said...

    Thank you for your kind words Mr. Kelly, they are greatly appreciated.

    For the bitter individual who can only complain about closed beaches, please go somewhere else, this county has grown on and will always be greatly influenced by the space industry, whether it is a manned space launch or an unmanned satellite your beaches would have been closed. I am sure there are other counties here in Florida that would welcome you with open arms, please go find one. And yes I do work in the space industry and will continue to do so with great pride and enthusiasm, because like Mr. Kelly I am 40 to and have been enamored by the Shuttle since the first time I saw the Enterprise flying piggy back over my kindergarten class in Houston in the 70's. Please keep writing about the space industry and asking us the tough questions, we know you love it as much as we do.

    Anonymous said...

    When you see the last shuttle launch, that will be the last time you will see an American Astronaut fly on an American ship thanks to our "Dear Leader."

    Anonymous said...

    http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1370/1

    Anyone who harbors a “hope” that things will not “change” and Constellation (the program replacing the Shuttle) will be allowed to survive is in for a disappointment after reading this article linked above. I know at work, the few that had hopes of finding jobs with Constellation or were already working on Constellation are quickly coming to the realization that will not happen. I have said it before and so far unwillingly stick with my prediction that when you see the last shuttle flight, you will see the last American Astronauts that will get to fly on an American ship for possibly decades to come.
    So, for those who voted for the Dear Leader, how’s that “hope and change” working out for you? I know Kennedy Space Center and its 15,000 employees are starting to find out right now.

    Anonymous said...

    To the person three posts up there: 1) I am not bitter, just abjectly frustrated at a shuttle system that is like ten years behind schedule and has cost about ten times more than they originally predicted; 2) the beach and refuge are rarely closed for unmanned launches; 3) I WILL NOT go somewhere else - I have the right to express myself same as you (it says so in the Bill of Rights); 4) I don't mind if the US spends as much or more on space - the more the better. I just want the money spent wisely. Unmanned probes are REALLY the way to go until technology catches up to our desires. Look at those two rovers on Mars - incredible bang for the buck. Then the shuttle program - a fizzle for the billions. As I said, put those 10-15,000 people to work, doing something productive. Right now you have them as a crutch on the most incredibly labor-intensive system in the history of mankind. As Americans, we can and will do better.

    Anonymous said...

    My son and I went to the launch for STS 104 thanks to Florida Today (PD & MC) It was a wonderful opportunity. We hope to go to the June 13 launch.

    C Strawmyer