Floridians have a right to feel cheated at the moment.
The space shuttle Enterprise took one last fly over Washington last week. New Yorkers also got a glimpse, not of puffy white trails, but the real thing, as the shuttle headed to a museum aboard the U.S.S. Intrepid.
But not us. We didn’t get a chance to see the shuttle’s sharp outline against the blue sky and give one last salute.
It was hard not to be annoyed, even a little resentful. For the shuttle is ours. In a state known for the ridiculous and the tacky— the late writer Harry Crews once called Florida the penis hanging from the belly of the continent—the shuttle was a monument to our possibilities and dreams, the serious ones.
We didn’t always feel so attached to Columbia, Challenger, Atlantis, Endeavour and Discovery, as well as the prototype Enterprise. Sometime after the shuttle first flew on April 12, 1981, too many of us became blasé about its flaming ascents and flawless landings.
If wonder were a switch, we fell asleep at it.
That all changed on an uncharacteristically cold morning on Jan. 28, 1986, when the single fat plume of the Challenger split in two against a cloudless sky, and seven people, even a school teacher, disappeared forever. The phrase, “Roger, go at throttle up,” became haunted, iconic.
The shuttles flew 135 missions. They orbited the earth 21,000 times and ventured across 542 million miles. Among the 365 astronauts was the improbably named Sally Ride. While the Challenger broke up soon after lift-off, the Columbia disintegrated over Texas during re-entry in February 2003.
It has always seemed to me that spaceflight transforms astronauts not just into heroes but almost certainly also philosophers; they are students not just of science but also infinity. What goes through the mind of someone who walks in space? Perhaps the deeply religious become atheists. Perhaps the atheists find a God. In that blackness, a middle way would seem impossible.
Now it’s over. The shuttles are confined to the ground, at what could hardly be a worse time. The death of the shuttle coincides with this terrible fear we have as Americans that we are slipping into the second rate, that we must downsize our ambitions. That’s why the end of the shuttle program left so many shocked, even angry. It ended? That’s it? Sure, we’ll be on Mars one day, but we need a cheer now, need to see people travel in space as easily as they might fly to Chicago to see an aging uncle. One last glimpse, one last time over Florida, even of the Enterprise, that never flew in space—was that really asking too much?
Mary Jo Melone, former columnist with the Tampa Bay Times, is a writer in Tampa.
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