Space shuttle memories take flight upon Endeavour’s arrival
Well, they were no Mercury or Apollo missions, but that’s the point.
The space shuttles were supposed to make the dramatic and heroic single-warrior space mission into something routine, to make it possible for humans to inhabit space with as much regularity and comfort as they might have on a camping trip, if you could go camping in zero gravity.
After a victory lap over California on Friday, Endeavour comes to its new L.A. home ferried by piggyback, the way the shuttles used to be delivered from their landing places back to their home base in Florida.
But to be there to see them land on their own power was a spectacle. I was there to witness it two or three times -- at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert, and once -- the most extraordinary because it was free of panoply and weeks of preparation -- a last-minute touchdown in White Sands, N.M., after bad weather in Florida and in California made the third-string landing site a necessity.
In October 1994, when Endeavour set down at Edwards Air Force Base, again because of bad weather in Florida, the New York Times headline was comical:
“After Detour to California, Shuttle Returns to Earth.”
That’s right; for New York, California is not of this earth.
And then there was the agony of seeing them blow up. First, Challenger. The 25th mission seemed so humdrum that only CNN was covering it live, and I was watching in the kitchen that January morning in 1986 as Challenger soared disastrously into what the flat-voiced NASA announcer finally acknowledged was “obviously a major malfunction.”
And then Columbia, 17 years later, returning to Earth from its mission, only minutes from the landing strip in Florida. All hands lost. And to compound the shock of the tragedy, some tasteless, vulgar Howard Stern fan made a prank call to MSNBC posing as a NASA spokesman and saying the shuttle had been shot down by a Stern show writer who thought the radio host was aboard.
Even though we had stopped watching the shuttle launches as a national ritual, even as Elon Musk, whom I wrote about not long ago, crafted SpaceX to fill the NASA void, something in us must still yearn for the sight and thrill of it, or we wouldn’t be stopping in our tracks by the millions, all over California, to look upward for one more glimpse of a space shuttle aloft.
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