Friday, July 8, 2011

End of an Era

In my next post, I'll write about the 4th of July festivities that we had on Kandahar Air Field. Today, though, I'll write about something I watched on television. Just minutes before I wrote this, the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched into orbit, beginning the final flight of NASA's Shuttle program. I have written in previous blogs about my attempts to watch a launch in person, which finally happened on April 5, 2010 as chronicled in my "Liftoff!" entry. As I have mentioned, I've been a fan of the space program all my life and especially fascinated with the Shuttle since April 12, 1981 when Columbia made its first flight. I still remember being in kindergarten and my dad waking me up early before school to watch the launch on television. Ever since then, I've watched launches whenever I could.
Though I often dreamed of being an astronaut, my interests were too mercurial and my dislike of advanced math and physics ensured that if I ever do go into space, it will have to be as a civilian in some sort of commercial capacity. (My naturally poor distance vision also convinced me early on that I would not be a pilot.) But every time I watched one of those Shuttles take off, I felt like my fantasies of spaceflight were somehow being fulfilled.
So this evening, just before 8 pm Afghan time, I sat in a dining facility with an unobstructed view of the television showing the British Sky News channel, waiting for them to switch coverage from the newspaper hacking scandal to the Shuttle. Sure enough, they switched over just before the countdown resumed from its T-9:00 minute hold. I watched as they defied the reports of bad weather, waited as they held the countdown at T-31 seconds, unable to hear what the problem was over the noise of the chow hall, and then did a double-take when I saw the clock had started again. And then, the familiar shots of the noise suppression system shooting into action under the main engines, the main engines coming alive in a bright orange burst, and the rocket boosters shooting Atlantis into the (unusually cloudy) sky.
As I walked away from dinner, I thought about how for the final time, somewhere in the sky above KAF, a US Space Shuttle orbiter was flying. While it was inevitable that the flights would end sometime, a combination of slow development, cost overruns, and bad planning has left the US without a manned launch vehicle and nothing past the drawing board stage. Our astronauts now have to travel to Kazakhstan to fly on Russian Soyuz rockets. While we will eventually develop some new method of space travel, the scuttling of NASA's planned Orion program and the lack of progress from private developers leaves us empty-handed, and that's a shame for the only nation to put humans on the Moon and build a reusable spacecraft. The people who built such a legacy for our space program, and the future generations they will inspire, deserve better.
So Godspeed Atlantis, and many thanks to the astronauts and ground crews of Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Endeavour. You have carried my dreams, and the dreams of the world.
Photo courtesy NASA: Atlantis STS-27 liftoff.

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