May 162011

The space shuttle Endeavour is set to launch in about an hour.  This will be the penultimate mission of the shuttle fleet, a program of manned space flight that has spanned most of my life.  As a geeked-out, aviation-obsessed kid, I clipped newspaper articles and pictures of the first shuttles being built, watched in captivated awe as the prototype, Enterprise, was released from it’s piggy-back position on top of a NASA 747 and floated towards the runway at Edwards. (Later, I built the scale model of those two craft, laboring for hours over the intricate plastic parts…ah youth!)

I watched all the early missions, knew the names of the first astronauts.  And then space flight became routine, commercialized, and I grew older.  The cynical part of my brain began to question, and still sometimes wonders, why we spend so much money on space flight.  It’s hard not to wonder about who’s going to benefit from these tax-payer funded junkets to outer space.

But this morning I stumbled across the NASA site and read a summary of the mission.  The shuttle is taking up the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-02 (AMS-02)in its cargo bay.  The purpose of this device is to gaze out into the very deepest reaches of the universe and measure the delicacies of time and space—dark matter and anti-matter and radiation sources from far beyond our own galaxy.  Somehow, this comforted me.

Reading the technical fact sheet about this billion dollar spectrometer helps me believe that there is nothing to be gained by this device except pure research, the expansion of human knowledge about our universe. The AMS-02 will not be the focus of the press reports-wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s husband is the shuttle commander and will garner any headlines-nor will it make sense to most of us lay readers (at least it didn’t make a lot of sense to this reader.)  Our continued interest in the origins of the universe will bear no economic fruit, except the odd research grant.

But to me, this type of mission represents the poetry of science, the simple, albeit esoteric and technically complex, human mind expanding its reach toward questions which it can’t stop asking itself.

Who would have thought that a fact sheet from NASA could have provided so much optimism this early in the morning? Time to go brew a pot of coffee and watch the launch.

-Rich Farrell

  12 Responses to “Godspeed, Endeavour — Richard Farrell”

  1. Rich – the your observation “human mind expanding its reach toward questions which it can’t stop asking itself” – provided me with optimism this morning. Thanks.

  2. Richie,great article…i have to say that I remember u building that model space shuttle!….Always enjoy ur articles…Thank you for sharing…

  3. Shelia,
    Thanks for the note. I still get a thrill watching the countdown and the launch.

    • I saw the shuttle decending, escorted by two fighter jets out the window of an airplane a year or so ago. You probably can’t remember the Apollo missions. Their decents were so scary, seeming a bit out of control, plopping into the water. Such a difference, so many things we have learned along the way.

  4. Fantastic, Rich! Thanks for sharing this! I used to walk through an “astronaut’s row” when I worked at the Air Force Academy. One of the graduates sent me the dog tags (and other momentos) from her own trip in space which felt like sacred science artifacts in my own hands. Yes- so agreed! Godspeed, Endeavor!

  5. “But to me, this type of mission represents the poetry of science, the simple, albeit esoteric and technically complex, human mind expanding its reach toward questions which it can’t stop asking itself.”

    Brilliant! After commenting, just had to follow your link to more info about the spectrometer, dark-matter controversies, etc. and updates about the International Space Station. I love the level of courage and cooperation it all entails. Rather epic when you pause to think about it. Thanks for reminding us to pause.

    • Jeanette,

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. My wife is a doctor and she once staffed the mission abort site in Spain…had to wait at this remote base for 48 hours just in case. The cool part was that she brought back lots of NASA stickers and patches for my kids.
      It’s funny to think how little attention these missions get anymore. It still amazes to watch these launches. Again, thanks for the comments.

  6. Rich – what an interesting 48 hours that must have been for your wife, anticipating, yet hoping that her services would not be needed. Kudos to her! (…the dog tags and flight suit were left at the Academy for a display to honor women grads). (last one- don’t mean to over-comment).

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