Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Space Shuttle: End of an Era

Ever since I was a young child, I have been completely captivated by and utterly fascinated with outer space. My earliest career ambition was to be an astronaut. I actually still possess my journal from kindergarten, which contains a page where my teacher had us write about and draw what we wanted to be when we grew up, and I drew myself (rather poorly, unfortunately, as I lack any artistic skills whatsoever) jumping around on the Moon in a green and silver spacesuit. I absolutely loved watching the Space Shuttle launches on TV.  When I was around 8 or 9, I even attempted to convince my parents to take our summer vacation in Florida so that we could visit Cape Canaveral and attend a shuttle launch . Although I was unsuccessful, probably because I was the lone member of my family truly interested in manned space flights, I continued to dream of eventually being one of the astronauts blasting off on a magnificent Space Shuttle.

Regrettably, it just wasn't meant to be. By the age of 11, I realized that my aspiration to become an astronaut was wholly unrealistic. First, I had moderate asthma which was not well controlled by my medications at the time. Second, I was rapidly approaching legal blindness in my left eye due to severe amblyopia (lazy eye), which has left me with almost no depth perception and an enormous tendency towards clumsiness. I was just not good astronaut material.

Despite being extremely disappointed, I was still mesmerized by the perplexing wonders of the universe. One day in sixth grade, we took a class trip to the school library. I quickly dashed to the non-fiction science section as always because, even at the tender age of 11, I was a hardcore science nerd. Having been at this elementary school for four years, I had already read practically every single book in that section, so I instantly noticed that there were several new books.  Excitedly, I seized one which appeared especially intriguing and deposited myself into one of the comfy, upholstered chairs.

The book was about the Hubble Space Telescope. I cracked open the book and began to flip through the pages, looking at the amazing images the telescope had captured of our universe. However, when I reached the now-famous image of the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula, my breath was literally taken away. I stared in pure awe at its extraordinary beauty. Before we left that day, I checked out all the library's books on nebulae, as I was fiercely desperate to learn everything I could about these astonishing and majestic phenomena.

Only a couple months later, I was enjoying my final night at a week-long Girl Scout camp in western Oklahoma. One cool tradition was that, weather permitting, we would spend our last night at camp on the tennis courts, instead of in our cabins. Once all the girls were settled in their sleeping bags, the camp counselors showed us constellations, asterisms, planets, star clusters, the Andromeda Galaxy, and the edge-on band of our own galaxy, the Milky Way.  They wielded green laser pointers, in order to indicate and/or trace out the different celestial objects for us, and passed around pairs of night vision binoculars, so that we could better observe the compact objects, like the planets, the star clusters, and the Andromeda galaxy.

The incontrovertible highlight of the night, though, was that a minor meteor shower was taking place. Over the span of 3 hours, I got to see about 20 meteors (although we called them shooting stars at the time). Even better, this was the first time in my life I had ever I had ever witnessed meteors. It was absolutely spectacular.

Those two events are what sparked my interest in astronomy and inspired me to dedicate my life to it, in order that I might unravel some of the countless mysteries of the universe.

However, despite exchanging my dream of being an astronaut for my desire to be an astronomer, I have maintained a profound enthusiasm for the Space Shuttle Program and eagerly followed each mission since I was 12, celebrating triumphs and grieving for loss.

In my opinion, the Space Shuttle's most outstanding accomplishment is the still continuing construction of the International Space Station.  Throughout my Jr. High, High School, and College years, I have watched intently as the astronauts, whom I tremendously admire, have gradually erected the International Space Station, a monument both to human scientific achievement and international cooperation.

Of course, I was immensely devastated by the Columbia disaster in 2003. I distinctly remember watching the news, thinking "how could this have happened?" and softly crying for hours as more and more details trickled into newsrooms across the country. NASA, however, was able to come back from this tragedy and continue to advance the frontier in space and manned space flight.

Last Friday was the very last launch of Atlantis, the very last launch of any of the Space Shuttles. I woke up early in order to watch Atlantis propelled into orbit on a colossal cascade of roaring flames. Knowing I will never see another Space Shuttle launch, I could not stop myself from shedding a few tears.

This coming Thursday Atlantis will return to Earth from its final mission and land, most likely at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, or else at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California, finally bringing about the end of a glorious era, which has not only significantly influenced my own life, but also the lives of millions of American's. I know chances are good that I will cry even more as the Space Shuttle program I have followed for ten years finally reaches its completion.

So, I must now say my final goodbye to Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis. Thank you for all your incredible contributions to science, as well as all your totally awesome launches (especially the ones at night!)! You will be sorely missed.

No comments:

Post a Comment