Joy, patriotic pride, and sadness over the end of an era swept over me as the space shuttle Discovery whooshed over our heads while the kids and I stood with what felt like half of Northern Virginia at National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center Tuesday morning. I wasn’t born until after the first astronaut landed on the moon, but I vividly remember (and was even invited to attend) the first shuttle launch. The 1986 Challenger explosion is a defining moment for my generation, and every launch that followed felt like an American triumph over tragedy, especially after the Columbia tragedy in 2003. We no longer naively believed that the shuttle was invincible after Challenger, and Columbia reinforced that. Space is still a wild frontier, with so much left to be tamed. Though there has been the International Space Station, the Hubble telescope, and the Mars Rover — to me, the shuttle program has been the iconic symbol of NASA. It is what I grew up with, studied, rooted for, cried over, cheered for when it rose again, and then struggled with the realization that we weren’t going to see another one launch. I can’t imagine not watching another one launching.
I pulled my kids out of school to watch today’s flight, and made a last minute decision to rush over to Udvar-Hazy rather than just watch from our front yard. The kids were reluctant to miss school, but once they felt — actually FELT — the air rush over them and saw the underbelly of the jumbo jet that gave it a piggyback ride to Virginia, they understood why I was so insistent. Miraculously I managed to pick the right spot to be directly under it for the first pass of the morning, directly under it, feeling so close that we almost felt like we could reach up and grab on for a ride. In fact, it flustered me so much, I pushed the wrong button on my new camera! I got off a couple of shots, but not the ones I should have!
Thankfully, we had two more chances for an up-close view.
Between flights, I had an opportunity to take some shots of the people who were trying to spot the shuttle.
There were people of all generations in the parking lot, including a grandfatherly gentleman who was also skipping school (“I told my geology professor I was skipping class so I could come here!”) He was clearly as giddy to be there as some of the kids. In fact, I almost think that the excitement factor racheted up in direct correlation with age. Though there were some grumblings along the political front about the future of the space program (one comment I heard, “JFK must be spinning in his grave!”), overall the crowd was united in how thrilled they were in being able to be this close to the action. It was the most well-run event and politely behaved crowd I have ever seen.
I’m not sure my kids fully grasp the meaning of this historic day, but one day they will, and they will thank me for understanding that sometimes, you can learn more out of the classroom than in it. In the meantime, they got to see the beauty of Discovery in the air, not once, but THREE times, hone their powers of observation, (When did the air traffic stop? When did the pacer plane come by? When did the helicopters sweep through, where did they hover? What clues told us when Discovery was coming back by and which path it would take next?) and feel the difference between watching an incredible moment and actually being a part of it.
Incidentally, one of the channels recently ran a series of programs that was co-created by Discovery Channel and NASA called When We Left the Earth: The NASA Missions. I found it so fascinating that I am going to purchase the DVDs and found you can buy them online at Amazon or at Discovery. I think these will help my kids help put today into perspective, and you may find them helpful for yours!
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