Saturday, September 22, 2012

Thank You, Endeavour

You friends posting fabulous pictures of Space Shuttle Endeavour's last flyby over California are making me weep.  First, I'm crying because I'm not there to celebrate this valedictory moment with you.  I love you all and miss you terribly, and this reminds me of that because of the space program events we have shared, both triumph and tragedy.  Some of those have been defining moments in our lives and our friendships: watching landings at Edwards Air Force Base; sitting in the shed in the Lloyd House courtyard, mute, staring at the images of Challenger on the big-screen TV, with one friend that evening passing out black strips to be attached to basketball uniforms.

I weep for the machine itself.  A fabulous piece of hardware, one of mankind's greatest technical accomplishments.  I still use a technical paper about the shuttle's software when I teach about real-time operating systems, and it never fails to impress.

Fabulous, but flawed: I weep for Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Judy Resnick, Greg Jarvis, Ellison Onizuka, Ronald McNair, and Christa McAuliffe.  I weep for Rick Husband, Willie McCool (perhaps the greatest name for an astronaut, ever), Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon.

I weep for the program; from my junior high school days until now the space shuttle has dominated our conception of what it means to fly into space.

I weep for the end of an era.  The step into commercial space travel is fraught with uncertainty.  Perhaps we should have done it twenty years ago, perhaps never; we won't know for another decade.  I stand in awe of the accomplishments that the commercial space companies have already made.  I am hopeful, but apprehensive.

I weep for Apollo, the boldest among many bold things Americans have done.  I weep because we left the job unfinished, and because the day may come again when no American, and perhaps no human, alive has been to the Moon.  As we saw last month, somewhat to our surprise our
heroes are mortal, and the youngest of them are nearing eighty.  To me, the greatest generational dividing line is July 20, 1969: were you born before, or after, a human being set foot on another celestial body for the first time?

I weep for our dreams.  Make no mistake about it -- I am a huge supporter of our unmanned space program, and Curiosity shows once again what we can accomplish when we try, and that it has the power to capture the imagination of people around the world.  But as long as we inhabit these bodies of flesh and blood, part of what it means to be human is to challenge ourselves physically as well as intellectually.  "To boldly go where no man has gone before," captured it perfectly.

Finally, I weep for the little boy who thrilled to every launch, with memories of Apollo 15 and STS-1 in person, to every event and landing, every discovery.  In what seems simultaneously an instant and forever, the boy grew from a dreamer in a hard worker, from a skinny kid with unruly hair to a middle-aged, gray-bearded, balding, slightly overweight man.  The first, the greatest dream was always to become an astronaut.  Indeed, I was worried I had been born too late, that by
the time I was an adult all of the interesting exploration would be done!  But still, just going would be wonderful.  Somewhere along the way, the dream got set aside in favor of easier-to-achieve goals.  I
am proud to be a professor, proud of my research and students, and deeply in love with my family.  But my wife still tells the story that I once said, "If aliens stop by, and ask if I want to go with them,
I'm saying 'Yes!'  Sorry if it means leaving you behind.  Maybe you can come, too?"

The tears are tears of deep emotion, both joy and sadness, tears for ourselves, for all of humanity, for our breathtaking accomplishments, our failures, and for our ability to go on.

Thank you, Endeavour.

Reach for the stars.