The space shuttle Discovery flew past the Science NetLinks office this morning.
It was really cool.
Photo Credit: Rudi Riet.
As 21st century Americans, we are pretty tough to impress. We have become accustomed to seeing amazing things happen all the time, whether through personal experience or through the shared interaction of the internet and television.
After all, no one even blinks at people reading books on a Kindle or carrying around hundreds of songs in their pockets. Cell phones have become so ubiquitous that we have to ban their use while driving to get people to pay attention to the road, but they also help to topple oppressive governments. Submersible vehicles explore the depths of the ocean and we watch the videos of their trips online the same day. When you see extraordinary things all the time, it starts to make you immune to them. They become commonplace and blasé, and you start to lose that sense of magic that comes with something special.
Manned flight in general, and the space shuttle program in particular, has been something special. Spanning 30 years and helping to define a generation, the space shuttle program marked some of our most ambitious moments through the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. And it was with mixed feelings that the nation bid farewell to the program last summer.
Today, however, we got one last shot to see a space shuttle leave the earth.
Photo Credit: NASA/Smithsonian Institution/Harold Dorwin.
En route to the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center out in Chantilly, Virginia, Discovery, anchored atop a converted 747 and accompanied by a fighter plane, approached the D.C. area around 9:30 this morning. Flying low enough that casual observers could read the writing on its side unaided, Discovery did three laps of D.C. before crossing the Potomac River and heading west to Dulles International Airport, where it landed shortly after 11 a.m.
The third of the six space shuttles, Discovery has logged 366 days in space, flown 39 missions (including the first shuttle launches after both the Challenger and the Columbia explosions) , carried 252 crew members, and traveled nearly 150 million miles since her launch on August 30, 1984.
If this time Discovery’s route was more gravity-bound than usual, her cloud-filled parade route was lined below by thousands of people who wanted one last chance to see her aloft and to offer their thanks for sparking the imagination of a nation.
Here in Washington, D.C., we are particularly immune to what looms large before us. We live amidst national monuments, dip our toes in the reflecting pool in front of the Capitol, and, if we don’t see the President on a regular basis, his motorcade passes us with some frequency.
But this morning, for few brief moments, people across the greater Washington, D.C., area came together and were awed. Conservatives and liberals, young and old, the well-off and the homeless, locals and tourists, all were united in their unabashed giddiness as the space shuttle Discovery passed by.
People on the street stopped and pointed, mouths agape. Cars pulled over on all the local highways. Office workers who didn’t want to miss out on the occasion climbed to their buildings’ rooftops. The National Mall filled with people, cameras aimed toward the sky as everyone waited to catch a glimpse of history fly past one final time.
Photo Credit: Grant Smith.
We were one people, united as Americans in our admiration for a mission-weary spacecraft, proud of the advances that science and engineering have brought to us, and eager to see what new innovations the space program offer us in the future. We can only hope that it’s as cool as this one was.
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