Taking to your social network of choice today (not to mention major news media outlets) your news feed was probably inundated with pictures snapped from local area office buildings and parking lots of the Space Shuttle Discovery taking its final flight on top of a Boeing 747 en route to its final resting place at the Smithsonian Air & Space Annex/Museum at Dulles Airport. A cool sight indeed because how often do you see a space shuttle hitching a ride on a 747 (and possessing a certain sober sentimentality as it represents that last ride of NASA’s space shuttle program), but did it really deserve such grandeur and attention (engineering feat notwithstanding)? Before logging on to Facebook today, I never knew so many of my peers even cared about NASA’s exploits these days, let alone knew the space shuttle program was retired after Atlantis’ last launch last summer (darn Obama for scuttling Bush’s planned successor, Project Constellation!).
The funny thing about me writing this is I’m a huge NASA fan, love space, love space shuttles (I will own Space Shuttle Pinball one day), and am super bummed the program had to end (again, darn Obama!). Yet considering the past achievements and various other markedly more exciting operations of the space shuttle program (launches anyone?), this “victory lap” flight seems to pale in comparison. I feel most people that got so excited about this somewhat boring (relatively speaking) sub-space flight are sort of like fair weather fans. I mean I didn’t see nary a post about Atlantis’s final flight from Cape Canaveral last summer? That was much more significant. I mean just cause a space shuttle “glides” over your house it’s all the sudden really important? Space exploration is cool now?
I mean first off it’s not like we haven't seen a 747 flying around our neighborhoods; perhaps not over DC and with a space shuttle attached to its back, but was the sight of it that much more novel than a massive solo 747 flying overhead like the dozens of times they do over Northern Virginia every day?
Secondly, as cool as the space shuttle is, it is a 30 year old aeronautical design. Seeing it in the mid-eighties was definitely, well, space-age, but in today’s aerospace industry it’s like seeing a classic car drive by; super cool, but not novel per se. It’s not like the sight of a 747 and space shuttle combined was much different than the hundreds of times we saw jets escort the shuttles back home from missions - yet everyone and their mother posted photos as if a second moon appeared in the sky (cool yes, but that cool...disabled and just gliding on top of a common plane?)
Finally, and this isn’t to marginalize this particular retirement flight because it was neat, but more to explain how much cooler and amazing the actual space shuttle launches were (see below). I mean if this pedestrian fly-by wowed you, then the actual launches must’ve blown your gaskets over the years. Or they didn’t, because you probably never watched any of them (save the Challenger’s and Columbia’s I bet), nor could name the rest of the fleet.
I don’t know, I guess I should be excited the exposure this event created for NASA and space programs in general – and I should be very happy NASA picked my backyard to gift one of its greatest technological achievements for its final display. Maybe my frustration is that there was just something so fair-weather about so many DC folks freaking out about the fly-by today. It reminded me a lot of so many in DC “Rocking the Red” these days that don’t even know who Don Beaupre is.
You wanna see cool…check this video of Discovery's final launch