Sunday, March 22, 2009


The Good Old Days In Space

It wasn't a moment I had anticipated, one that I planned for. I turned in my chair and there was this glorious fireball in the sky. And as I watched and people around me gasped, the fireball kept climbing and then there was this magnificent tail tracing white against the blue sky.
Another shuttle launch.
It's something we take for granted. We barely notice the delays because of weather, the safe returns.
We do notice the questions about cost and value. Except in the days of 50 billion dollar frauds, the cost of space are dwarfed.
Once upon a time, I would have plotted for days to see a shuttle launch in Florida. I would have consulted maps and newspapers and the Internet, maybe even phoned NASA.
It was part of my training as an assignment editor when before political conventions, Stanley Cups and Grey Cups, I plotted camera positions and reporter assignments and knew just about everything it was possible to know about an event the day before.
Like many other Canadians of a certain age, I cheered when our American cousins finally matched and then surpassed the Soviet Sputniks.
On a bedroom wall, ignored, is the large iconic photograph of the astronaut staring at the camera, the reflections in the mask showing his surroundings. The photograph was printed from the actual negative of the actual film that had been to the moon. NASA said the picture was only available to certain senior media executives. I was impressed but I don't think my sons were. They had already adjusted to a real man in the moon.
But years pass and we even get used to portraits shot on Mars.
So when two friends and I escaped from the noise of a St. Patrick's Day dinner in the clubhouse of the Boca Shores condo clubhouse at St. Pete's Beach and some people came out on the balcony behind us and started talking about the shuttle, I almost didn't turn around.
Then I heard the explosion of excitement, and there it was, climbing, climbing, climbing while all of Florida gazed into the sky and felt a little closer to the heavens.
It started to curve left, or so it seemed, and it traced sort of a flattened question mark. How symbolic I thought, since questions about the space program persist and it seems, if you leave national ego out of it, that robots can do the job of space exploration much easier than worrying about men in capsules.
The talk used to be about costs. Funny how trillion-dollar deficits and the tender treatment of even the fatcat crooks of Wall Street have made that almost irrelevant.
Since it has been revealed that the financial world has been criminally inept for years, and the financial media were toothless watchdogs, and the bureaucrats who were supposed to be watching were either sleeping or on the take, spending billions on shooting metal and humans into space seems a much better use of taxes than rewarding bankers for being stupid when they weren't being robbers.
Funny how a few seconds of gazing into the sky can remind us of younger days when space was still a Jules Verne science fiction tale and the idea of actually going outside the envelope of earth was still the impossible dream.
When the shuttle landed almost two weeks later, all of Florida, it seemed, was on high alert. There was a delay because of wind and clouds but the state was filled with people searching the skies. They must have known they wouldn't be seeing anything. And they didn't. But there was a big boom when the shuttle broke the sound barrier, and everyone asked that evening, even to strangers in the supermarket, did you hear that noise when the shuttle came back. And then they grinned, as if they had been at the controls.
In this days of broken everything, the shuttle is a victory rocket over a troubled sea. A reassuring sight. Just like the jetliner landing safely in the Hudson. At least we still get something right.

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