Friday, July 08, 2011

Space Shuttle and Harry Potter


It was mentioned on the news last night that some young adults have never known a life without Harry Potter. For them, this final movie is the end of an era. For many of us 30-40-somethings, it's like that with the final space shuttle launch. I can't remember a time without it, and some of my earliest memories were made while watching its progress.

I was so excited about space exploration as a kid that I once made my own set of solar system flash cards by copying a set of colored, illustrated cards in the library onto my own set of index cards. I carried them around wrapped in a rubber band in the 4th grade. I memorized planetary statistics and knew the names of several asteroids. Without a doubt, I was going to become an astronomer. That was a year or so before I discovered entomology, a decade before I discovered ham radio, and twenty years before I discovered Arabic.

I was six years old when the Enterprise carried out its first test flights off the back of a modified 747. I can't remember whether this test was broadcast live, (it seems unlikely to me that it would have been). But I do remember watching video of the flight tests with excitement at some point during that year, probably on CBS Evening News.

I do remember watching various launches throughout my elementary school years. We didn't have TV's in the classrooms back then. If we were going to watch something, the teachers would wheel the TV in on a cart, and several classes would crowd into one room to watch. At some point there was a TV mounted in the school's administration office, but I think that wouldn't have been until after 4th grade.

This was long before VCR's were common. The first time that I remember watching anything on a video tape was in my 8th grade English class, when our teacher played Michael Jackson's Thriller video on a beta cassette player. In the early days, there was a lot of excitement around each live launch.

The space shuttle was my introduction to space flight. I was too young to remember the lunar landings, although I was close enough to them to still feel excited to watch the next one, and to look forward to the first landing on Mars, which I was sure would happen within a decade or two. We're all still waiting for that one.

My initial enthusiasm regarding outer space wore off eventually, overtaken by an obsession with insects and the study of entomology. I still enjoyed lying out in the back yard at night watching for satellites to fly over, and learning the names of some of the stars. I had a full-size lunar globe which identified many of the visible craters on both the moon's near and far sides. My curiosity has stayed intact, but my obsession has waned.

I was in 10th grade English class at Yuma High School when the Challenger disaster occurred. When the announcement came over the intercom, our English teacher told us to listen up because we were about to hear from Christa McAuliffe (the teacher on board the craft). Of course what we heard was not her voice, but the announcement that the Challenger had been destroyed in a malfunction. I remember all of the students walking around the high school campus like shell-shocked zombies for the rest of the day.

When the Columbia was destroyed on reentry, I was working in Georgia. I had pulled up to my driveway in my truck when I tuned in to NPR. The newscasters were listing the names of the shuttle astronauts one by one and giving short descriptions of their individual backgrounds and specialties. This sounded ominous to me, as I had only heard that done when there had been an accident of some kind. Sure enough, a few minutes later, the narrator interjected that it appeared that Columbia had broken up over Texas.

Watching the space shuttle Atlantis lift off this morning brought back many memories. I was glad to see it lift off safely and without any mishaps. It has been said (too many times) that this final launch represents the end of an era. It feels like the end of my childhood. What will be next? I'm excited to see where we will go now.