Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Boldly went

I’m sad for Discovery.  The Space Shuttle was the Sputnik of my generation.  I was nine when the first spaceworthy shuttle – Columbia – flew.  It was a big event at my school and we made a wall chart and watched the launch on TV.  This might surprise you, but I was kind of a geeky kid.  Me and Michael Pike and…. virtually nobody else…. were entirely obsessed with the shuttle for quite a long time.  And why wouldn’t we be?  It was basically Thunderbird 2.

Fun fact: we’d just been learning about the ancient Greek gods, a subject I loved.  It seemed so full of adventure and heroism and it was so very much more interesting than the bland version of Christianity the school and my parents served up.  Odysseus was my hero, partly because he was a bit of a knob, but mostly because he succeeded by thought and trickery rather than lunging at everyone with a flimsy sword.  Also because he didn’t want to be there in the first place and just wanted to go home.  But my favourite part was his defiance of the gods.  Sure, he got punished for it, but he took it in a pretty stoic fashion.  And he won!  He got home!  The gods could not stop him.  To be fair, he did some shitty things on the way, but he beat the gods in the end. 

Could there be a better hero for a bratty, geeky, increasingly atheistic kid?  Well, it turns out there was.  The building of Columbia is one of the things that turned me on to science and engineering.  I was already devouring pop science books but alongside any other book that hoved into view.  Columbia acutely changed my focus.  It made me want to understand things and build things.  It led me – and I know this is going to seem horribly pretentious – to those other Greeks.  The ones who sat around with styluses drawing triangles. I took what I was fascinated with about the ancient Greek culture and poured it into Plato and Archimedes and Euclid and Pythagoras… The proximity of the Greek myths and the Shuttle in my schooling did something to me that might never have happened otherwise and while I have nothing else to thank my teacher Mrs Hall for, I thank her profoundly for taking the Shuttle seriously.  This might be the most difficult thing I’ve ever said: Thank you, Mrs Hall, you horrible, spiteful old bigot: despite all your horrific bullying, you helped me become a scientist. I’ve no doubt you are revolving - as you rot in your grave - to learn that.  Assuming you are dead.  If you aren’t, hey, let’s get in touch!

I cried when Columbia was destroyed on re-entry in 2003.  Of course, I was sad for the crew and their families, but I was also sad for the machine.  By then it had become something like the Flying Scotsman: something iconic that did a whole variety of things nothing else had ever done.  Well, apart from the other shuttles, of course, but at this stage I hope you’ll permit me some sentimentality toward a machine.

So I’m sad that shuttles won’t be flying any more.  I’m sad that nobody really cares.  I understand that our economies have priorities, but – and I might have mentioned this before – I’m a geek.  Space is as close as I can get to a spiritual home.  I mean… it’s SPACE.

And the shuttle project was the apex of the “yeah…..I can probably do that….does anyone have a programmable calculator?” attitude I’ve tried to adopt throughout my scientific career.

I understand the reasons for the Shuttle’s demise, but I’ll miss it.  Anyone who doesn’t has no soul.

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