Thursday, November 20, 2008


This evening I stepped outside at 6:13 and watched a star-like object rise in the western sky, narrowly skirting a brilliant Venus and traveling the arch of the firmament until it passed directly overhead, continuing onward and finally setting in the east.

This Retrograde Traveler was none other than the Space Shuttle Endeavour, docked with the International Space Station. Having no telescope - merely a set of binoculars held by a shaky hand - I was not able to discern anything in the way of a shape. I certainly was not able to make out the tiny figures of Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper and Shane Kimbrough in the midst of their especially tricky task considering that they were 220 miles away and moving at about 17,500 MPH.

I’ve seen the Shuttle at least once before as it coasted overhead, but it is She Who Must Be Obeyed who got what perhaps was the most dramatic look at it in flight. It was back in March 1978, when SWMBO was a first-grade teacher in southeast Houston, and the very first Space Shuttle - the Enterprise, from the starship of the same name in “Star Trek” - was being carted to Ellington Field, just a few miles to the south.

Carted? Nay, flown...piggybacked atop a specially modified Boeing 747. It was clearly visible from SWMBO’s school, this impressive Aeronautical Beast with Two Backs.

Here it is thirty years on, and, despite the rare disaster or two, the Shuttle no longer generates the same excitement it once did. Its operations have become, alas, routine...although I don’t know whether that is a Bad Thing or a Good Thing. Bad, in that we are complacent, even when faced with the near-miraculous; Good, because that complacency comes from routine, unexciting, (reasonably) safe operations.

But it still tickles my sense of wonder, seeing that little speck of brilliant white in the darkling sky as it crosses the heavens in four minutes. Godspeed, ladies and gentlemen - our intrepid Astronauts! May you enjoy a successful journey and a safe return home.

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