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Sunday, September 30, 2012
End of an Era
(Note: today's post wanders a bit off the Hollywood reservation -- something I try to avoid in a Sunday post -- but this is what I felt like writing about, and I've learned to trust my instincts at the keyboard.)
Thousands of Californians between the state capitol in Sacramento and the putative entertainment capitol in Los Angeles got a once-in-a-lifetime thrill when the space shuttle Endeavour -- bolted atop a customized 747 – made one last victory lap of the state where she was born before returning to earth for good as the main exhibit at the California Science Center near downtown LA.
I followed television coverage from our Gold Room as the decommissioned ship was ferried south over Santa Barbara and Malibu, at which point the entire cast and crew of my show poured from the cool sanctuary of our air-conditioned sound stage into the hot sunshine. There we waited, the anticipation mounting. Although this well publicized fly-by seemed a bit silly to me beforehand – something of a stunt, really – I found myself caught up in the moment.
It had been a long time. As a kid, I was just becoming aware of the larger world beyond my family’s secluded rural enclave as the U.S. space program and the space race with the Soviet Union played out on national television. Those early 60’s launches of the first American sub-orbital and orbital flights received saturation coverage from all three networks, which meant that from well before the final countdown until splashdown (and beyond), there was nothing else on TV. With no cable or Internet back then -- just ABC, NBC, and CBS -- those early televised space flights became the national hearth around which we all gathered for a shared experience that brought Americans together in a way I haven’t experienced since.*
Following the success of the Mercury Program came Project Gemini and Skylab, which built the technological foundation for the Apollo program that would send the first men to the moon and back. This is all ancient history for the digital generation, which hadn't yet been born when the last Apollo mission splashed down. They’ve heard about it, of course, and seen dusty old videotapes of key moments in the space race, but there’s no way they can feel or really understand the life-and-death drama of those early days when each launch represented the highest of high-wire acts -- each and every one performed without a net.
Sometimes you really do have to be there.
The end of Apollo brought the Space Shuttle program, a fleet of four sophisticated space-trucks designed to serve as the primary orbital launch vehicle for astronauts, large satellites, and the components required to construct the International Space Station. If it fell short of the initial plans – which called for a launch every two weeks – this was due more to unrealistic optimism on the part of NASA management than any lack of effort by the small army of engineers and technical support people. The first launches and landings of the shuttle had the same edge-of-your-seat excitement of the Project Mercury days, but as shuttle after shuttle went into orbit and returned, the process settled into the measured rhythms of routine. Major networks stopped covering every launch, leaving that to CNN in favor of morning TV gab-fests featuring lame pseudo-celebrities blathering about nothing. Going into space seemed all too easy now, no longer even newsworthy.
Then came the numbing shock of the Challenger disaster that killed seven astronauts, a pointed reminder that there will never be anything “routine” about rockets and space travel. Riding a pillar of flame into the heavens is every bit as dangerous as the phrase implies. Seventeen years later, the Columbia -- our very first shuttle – broke apart and burned up during re-entry, killing seven more highly-trained and motivated men and women. Stunned by these two tragic bitch-slaps of sobering reality, we could no longer take a shuttle flight for granted anymore -- launch or landing, it was all a high-stakes roll of the dice now.
Through those tragedies, the space station was completed, the Hubble Telescope launched (with later missions to correct the vision of a flawed mirror and service the gyros and cameras to extend the service life and expand its capabilities), and countless other missions successfully accomplished. For all its shortcomings and the terrible cost in lives and treasure, the shuttle has been a brilliant success.
And now it’s over. For the first time since I was a little kid milking goats back on the farm, America lacks the capability to launch people into orbit. Granted, the recent (and to me, miraculous) landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars represents another quantum leap forward in planetary exploration, but when it comes to pure human drama, sending robots into space is no substitute for manned space flight.**
The vast majority of Americans only saw the shuttles on television. They were built here in Southern California, and occasionally returned from space to the desert north of LA when bad weather precluded a Florida landing, but most of the action took place back East. The nearest I came to a close-up look was while shooting a commercial (for Tang, naturally) on a mock-up in Downey during the early 80’s. That was fun, but far from the real thing. Infinitely more impressive was seeing one of the shuttles begin its descent to earth over the San Francisco Bay Area back in the mid-90’s. The ship was scheduled to land in Florida around 7:00 a.m. EST, which meant I had to set the alarm for 3:30 a.m. here on the West Coast, then stand outside in the wintry pre-dawn chill of Northern California, yawning and shivering while looking up, waiting for something to happen.
I wasn’t sure what to expect – maybe a tiny dot moving against the backdrop of stars – and thus was utterly unprepared for the bright orange arrowhead that appeared high overhead a few minutes later. Silently gliding across the dark sky, it looked about the size of a 747 at altitude, glowing like a charcoal briquette burning at peak temperature in the barbecue pit. In fact, it was much hotter than that.
My jaw dropped. Having followed the space program my entire life, I was well-versed in the speed of re-entry and those amazing heat shield tiles designed to keep the shuttle from burning up like a meteor, but actually seeing them in action – and knowing there were seven people inside that glowing charcoal briquette – completely blew my mind.
I watched the orange arrowhead disappear into the east, and four minutes later, heard the faint-but-distinctive twin sonic booms that mark re-entry of a shuttle to the atmosphere. Twenty minutes later, the ship was safely on the ground in Florida.
Forget about going back to bed – I was so jazzed at witnessing such an astonishing sight that sleep was out of the question.
All these memories from the past were swirling through my head while waiting for Endeavour to fly overhead, generating a complex stew of emotions. In so many ways, this last fly-by would draw the curtain on half a century of America pushing ever further into space -- in an effort that helped define the 20th Century for our country. Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo all came to a more-or-less scheduled end, but this felt different. For the first time since NASA was created, the end of one major space program will not lead directly to another with clear-cut goals. After fifty years of pressing ever forward, we seem to have lost our way in space.
A wave of excitement rippled through the crowd, and suddenly there it was, flying low and slow right over the studio, much closer and bigger than I'd expected -- two enormous vehicles joined in flight, gliding through the sky above Hollywood. The assembled crowd (cast, crew, and office staff from several shows being shot on the lot) let out a loud cheer punctuated by giddy shouts of joy. There was an almost childlike sense of shared wonder, awe, and of being part of something much larger than any one of us. This was something special.
For all its familiarity, the space shuttle remains a highly visible symbol of what we as a people can accomplish once we set our minds to it. That will be worth remembering in the challenging days to come, offering hope that maybe we can solve the myriad bad-and-getting-worse problems plaguing us here on earth. If this flyover was a bit of a stunt, what the hell -- our tax dollars built the shuttle fleet, so it's only fitting that we had one last look at Endeavour before she was forever grounded. As silly as it might sound, there was magic in the air as the shuttle passed overhead. Much to my surprise, I got a little choked up and misty-eyed at witnessing a moment that marked the end of an era.
Then it was gone, the sky above Hollywood empty again. The excitement over, we all trudged back on stage to the unreal reality of television for another twelve hours of grinding out the sit-com sausage.
* Not until the tragedy of the Twin Towers and 9/11, that is -- but where those early NASA missions represented the best of human achievement, the crucible of 9/11 forged bonds of a very different sort.
** Truth be told, I’m not sure we can afford that kind of drama anymore. Although I have believed in the space program my entire life, I don’t see much point in sending people back to the moon, and the notion of a manned Mars landing anytime in the foreseeable future strikes me as pure fantasy. Given that we face such monumental challenges here on earth – truly existential crises – we need to put our creative energies and collective shoulders to the wheel of saving this planet before sending people to other celestial bodies. I’m fine with launching robots into space and humans into orbit as necessary, but putting a man or woman on Mars can wait.