We hustled out of the house this morning to Kite Hill at Magnuson Park in the hopes that we could catch a glimpse of NASA’s Super Guppy transport plane as it flew into Boeing Field, loaded with the nose and crew compartment of the Space Shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer (FFT). Though I’m disappointed that Seattle’s Museum of Flight won’t be getting one of the real shuttles, the wooden FFT mockup was used to train every shuttle astronaut, and the general public will be allowed inside it (unlike the real deals in the Smithsonian, Intrepid Museum in New York, and elsewhere).
After craning our necks at every sea plane overhead, the Guppy and its Learjet chase plane quietly flew north on the other side of Lake Washington:
If you squint just right, you can see the Super Guppy dwarfing its Learjet chase plane. This camera phone photo doesn’t really do the experience justice. With such a long history of aviation, the Seattle sky is full of interesting planes — I’ve seen a B-17 Flying Fortress and a B-25 Mitchell (twice) fly over in the last three weeks. But the Super Guppy carrying Space Shuttle history was something unique. Everyone at the park looked up, shouting for others to look and wondering (if they hadn’t read the paper this morning) what such an odd airplane could be.
Beneath the Guppy’s flight path, the experience was even more awe-inspiring. My friend Mark commented on the photo above, “That’s it going right over my house. It was an incredible thing. Windows rattled, dogs barked. Flying so low an Edgar Martinez pop fly could have hit it, it looked like.” Indeed.
Here’s a better view by The Seattle Times as it lands at Boeing Field:
My favorite author of speculative fiction, Ray Bradbury, died recently. Where Clarke and Asimov explored what affect technology would have on humanity, Bradbury explored what it is to be human. The literary canon will remember Bradbury for Fahrenheit 451, but I love him for the language he used in books like Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Ever a proponent of science and space exploration, Ray Bradbury was invited to speak (alongside Arthur C. Clarke, Carl Sagan, and others) at NASA JPL just as Mariner 9 arrived at Mars in November 1971. In this clip, Bradbury reads his poem “If Only We Had Taller Been”.
I looked up one evening recently and saw the crescent Moon, Venus, and Jupiter forming a line across the deepening twilight sky. Suddenly, it seemed as though I could actually feel the Earth’s axial tilt — the moon and the planets showed me what was truly “horizontal” in relation to the much bigger solar system of which the Earth is just a minuscule part.
At that moment, waiting for my bus, the universe opened beneath my feet. I looked across the ecliptic to Jupiter and felt as though I were standing on the slope of a steep mountain at the edge of the sea, a lighthouse beaming across the darkness from the far shore. Below the line formed by Jupiter and Venus, I stared down into the depths of space.
To keep from feeling as if I were about to slip off the face of the Earth, I grabbed hold of the bus stop sign.
For my 12th birthday in 1986, my grandmother sent me a card covered in people doing grown-up jobs — fireman, policeman, doctor, teacher, and astronaut. Inside, the card informed me that I could grow up to be anything I wanted to be. A few short months after the Challenger disaster, Grammie had crossed off the astronaut and written, “Except this one.”
Despite all that the Shuttle has accomplished in the intervening 25 years, America’s relationship with the space program has never been the same, and human space flight at NASA has merely hobbled along — at least compared to the giant leaps taken in the 60’s and early 70’s. I may still believe that our 43rd president was the worst in our history, but one thing he did right was to set NASA’s sights beyond low earth orbit again, to the Moon and Mars.
The launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis on its final mission today marks the beginning of a strange gap in America’s history of human space flight.
The Orion/Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is still under development, as are the commercial launch vehicles designed to take astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station. Until these new systems come online, NASA astronauts must hitch rides aboard spacecraft built and launched by other countries. Perhaps we’re witnessing the birth of a new, more cooperative era, but it feels strange that NASA is no longer self-reliant.
Someone recently asked a random online forum what one place we wanted to go most in the universe. Most people responded with answers bounded by Earth’s atmosphere, but I couldn’t help imagining what a trip to the moons of Saturn — Titan, Tethys, Phoebe, and dozens more.
Chris Abbas created a video featuring Titan and its moons that captures their mystery without diminishing the real science behind the Cassini mission that sent back these images. Make sure to expand the video to full-screen for the full effect.