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Godspeed Atlantis July 9, 2011

Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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The television was something from the Jetsons, an oblong grey box with rounded corners, dials for tuning, volume, brightness and contrast. The speaker sat behind a fat grid of perhaps one-quarter inch square openings below the dials. Two bright aluminum antennas rose on pivots from just behind the cabinet, atop the protruding cathode ray tube. It is 1962.

A camera fixed on the towering rocket and gantry, delicate wisps of gas drifting, a shorebird in the foreground launching itself into the sky. The gravelly voice of Walter Cronkite, America’s wise uncle, marvels for us all at men who strap themselves into tiny metal capsules atop a hundred thousand pounds of explosives and point themselves at the sky.

The television’s picture was black-and-white but informed by the photos from National Geographic of a black to deep to be rendered by 1950s pixels, of the Terran browns and ocean blues and leafy greens and cloud tops from an angel’s view, the perfect curve of the horizon with its blur of atmosphere, the sirens of Magellan.

Imagine if you will a future [the narrator says in his best Rod Serling voice, smoke drifting from a cigarette like condensation clouds from the rocket] in which America is too busy with distant wars, with the notoriety of crimes and stars, with the paper’s payday sales flyers to be bothered to reach for the stars. I watched rapt as what may be the last launch of my lifetime unfolded, held my breath as the weather forecasters hesitated then relented and said “go”, then wept like an old fool at the words “main engine start” and “liftoff” and “cleared the tower”, the roaring fireball and contrail obscured as much by my own wet eyes as by the low cloud cover.

Our last space craft is christened Atlantis: an apt name. If we cannot dream of flight beyond discounts to Aruba, will not cross oceans without three meals a day and nightly shipboard entertainment, if we do not have the foresight attributed to the people of mythical Atlantis, we are left with the sooty gray streets of morning smelling of exhaust, a starkly black and white newspaper I am afraid most mornings to unfold, mad rumors of the end of days. I do not believe the Mayan calendar foretells a date. Suspended in a museum, its cryptic glyphs intelligible only to experts, it tells us instead of the price of endless war and ecological disaster, prophesies an end we cannot precisely foresee but must expect.

The words God speed spoken by Houston one last time into a microphone; I may never hear them again. We are left with God help us all.

Hail Atlantis. Ad Astra.

Comments»

1. judyb54 - July 9, 2011

Thank you. This is indeed a sad time.

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2. Bdaggerbones - July 10, 2011

Mark, I think you and I are on the same page on this. I rember when the teacher would wheel a T.V. into the classroom so we could watch lift-offs, space walks, lunar landings, and splash downs. Rationally, I know there are lots of other things we could have spent the money on, but I still feel a sadness at the end of an era.

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3. Marco - July 11, 2011

During a near death experience, CG Jung had a few visions. One was of a enormous conflagration in which almost everything was destroyed. Mankind had just squeaked by.

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4. Pontchartrain Pete - July 11, 2011

Thanks for putting things more eloquently than I ever manage to do, Mark.

I was lucky enough (pretty lucky; 150 out of 5200 applicants; still not Powerball lucky, though) to have been invited to the NASA Tweetup for the final launch. We received a series of talks from astronauts, administrators and engineers and each touched on the future of the space program. Testing and planning continue and one of the launch pads is well into its way of being refurbished with new equipment.

Lockheed Martin and Boeing both had mock-ups of their contributions to the new crew vehicle on display on site and the mock-up of the launch abort system (the rocket that sits on top of the capsule) is on display at the visitor’s center.

While none of the speakers was happy with the current situation, all of them said there is definitely a future to U.S. manned spaceflight. Their biggest issue at the moment seemed to be that they are highly peeved at having to rely on the Russians to ferry us to the space station until our new systems are operational.

One pointed out that we need to remember there was a 7-year gap between Apollo-Soyuz and the space shuttle’s first launch and no one expects that to be the case this time around.

But, I think, given the absolute insanity regarding anything to do with the budget these days, anything is possible. Despite 2010’s $58.4 billion (over three years) authorization for NASA programs, actual spending is at the mercy of individual appropriation bills. The 2012 committee recommendation cuts $1.4 billion (34%) from NASA’s space operations (which includes $1B from retiring the shuttle).

The good news for manned missions is that the 2012 recommendation will retain 96% of last year’s funding for exploration that includes “…funding above the request for NASA to meet Congressionally mandated program deadlines for the newly authorized crew vehicle and launch system.”

So, let’s just call it a case of “Bring out your dead.”

NASA: “I’m not dead.”
Congress: “‘Ere, he says he’s not dead.”
The Public: “Yes he is.”
NASA: “I’m not.”
Congress: “He isn’t.”
The Public: “Well, he will be soon, he’s very ill.”
NASA: “I’m getting better. ”
Senator Ben Nelson: “No you’re not, you’ll be stone dead in a moment.”

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