By Sharon Klotz
Today I was an eyewitness to history. Space Shuttle Atlantis took off this morning on its very last flight.
The first thing most people who have seen a Shuttle launch tell you is how HUGE it looks. But I was struck by the other-worldly color of the plume. It was like liquid metal, and radiant in the way the Sun is: brilliant light and a warm expanding sphere. Then, the sound. Pressure waves barged into and through my bones. Popcorn firecracker sounds came when the Shuttle was nearly out of sight, but then lingered in a mis-matched audio/visual experience that I wish everyone could have seen. It was unforgettable proof of what we know about the speed of light versus the speed of sound.
I had an unexpected awareness that what I was seeing at that moment -- the violent combustion forming and becoming the source of thrust for the launch -- was already archaic. It was as if I were already in a far future looking back at the creative and valiant efforts available at the time -– meaning today. But they are, oh how crude, in comparison to the technologies we'll be using in the future.
Most people think of the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle program as just that -- the end of something. In fact, though, this transition is a good thing for innovation. Given all the infrastructure in place to support this Shuttle program and this Shuttle design, there's a lot of inertia against radical changes. So it's time for the doors to open wider, and for this phase of the international space program to move out of the incubator.
Sir Richard Branson’s company, Virgin Galactic, has already built some prototypes for a sub-orbital spaceflight craft. He has said that a year from today, he hopes to be strapped in ready to launch... with his family, including his 90-year-old mother, to prove that space flight is safe. Everyone knows what’s ending; no one really knows what’s starting.
The International Space Station has a different problem. It's amazing to me that there are people from several different countries living and working in space, that I am part of a generation that gets to be here on Earth while this is happening -- and yet very few Americans know or care. Perhaps the problem is partly that the Space station doesn't have a name. The public has no way to connect to it emotionally. Except for tweets from astronauts, there’s almost no news about the Space Station. I wish there were a weekly newscast from or about it
I had one final image when I saw Space Shuttle Atlantis in its full scale relative to the landscape, and relative to the human scale of the people strapped inside. That image was the Shuttle as an enormous, powerful gorilla with four delicate tiny wildflowers -- the six humans -- in its palm.
I know a day will come when space travel will be as annoying as air travel is today. But, right now, it's pretty magical.
Sharon Klotz is an educational consultant who is attending the last launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.