Scott Francis

For the last time, wheel stop

Fifty years ago, one man became the first to fly into space.

Five weeks ago, I watched Space Shuttle Discovery’s final launch with a group of dear friends.

And one month ago, Discovery made its final touchdown at Kennedy Space Center.

Discovery is the first of the Shuttles to be completely retired. Even though it took awhile to get off the ground this time, it gave a magnificent performance for its swan song.

Like the Concorde, and the family’s 1978 Nova, its painful to see the Shuttles retired when they’ve got a spark or two left. But on the other hand, I know that there’s not much more that can be done with them. The shuttles are high-maintenance machines spawned both from the Apollo era, and a host of requirements that vanished in the time it took to build them.

However, Phil Plait already covered that ground And the Kennedy Space Center Staff did their own send-off. That’s not what this post ended up being about.

A path for those behind us

I cant recall a time in my life without the shuttle program. I had a Skylab pop-up book "one day, our future spaceplanes will visit this station". (Whoops)

For kindergarten, my mom sewed me a naptime pillow. On one side were the usual SF rocketships. But the other side was an iron-on transfer of Columbia’s first landing in 1981, with the legend First Spaceship Lands on Earth.

My class was too young to be watching Challengers last launch directly, but I remember the teacher tearfully showing us newspaper articles on the accident. I was playing on the carpet in front of the TV when Dan Rather started mentioning O-rings. Odyssey Magazine dedicated an issue to explaining the findings of the Rogers Commission1, which I re-read for a month.

The dreams of those who have fallen…

The Pacific Science Center was a staple of Saturday afternoons and childhood memories alike2. Their IMAX theatre ran Hail Columbia nonstop until The Dream is Alive came out. Dad took us to both, but all I remember was being scared to death of the SRB ignition in full IMAX® audio. For most films in the years afterwards, I had my hands over my ears until I was sure no rockets were about to take off.3

On every visit to the Science Center though, my brother and I would always insist on one thing: to sit in the centers Gemini capsule mockup. Wed sit in both seats, pretend to be flying in space, and madly flip switches until other impatient kids kicked us out. And the mockup wasn’t a kitbash of old car parts : looking into actual Gemini capsules at Kennedy, only the presence of a flight stick stopped the spooky sense that’d I’d flipped those same switches before.

Today, NASA announced the final retirement destinations of all four remaining orbiters. None are going to the Seattle Museum of Flight.

But one of Johnson Space Centers simulators is.

…The hopes of those who will follow

Even with the thorough scrubbing and decontamination, the odds are good that most museums aren’t ever going let visitors inside a real Shuttle. I’m not aware of any actual used space hardware that the public can really touch—always out of reach, behind a velvet rope.

Tactile science was a big, big part of my growing up, even if parts of it left me in tears. There’s still very little that’s completely hands-off at PSC, and the Museum of Flight has plenty of kid-friendly exhibits. Plus, y'know, sitting in cockpits.

With a full-size Shuttle simulator, the sky’s the (ahem) limit for the Museum. Maybe they’ll open it up to walkthroughs, like their ISS module mockup. Or maybe they’ll run actual sim missions in it for visitor groups. Whichever they choose, it means that more people can actually feel what it’d be like, just a little bit. And that little bit, coupled with an active imagination, can take you very far indeed.

Those two sets of dreams weave together.

The Gemini flights were finished decades before I was even born. But that didn’t stop me, my brother, and untold others from sitting in those hard metal chairs and dreaming.

The Gemini mockup is still at Pacific Science Center. And now, the Museum of Flight will have its own piece of tactile space history.

I’m looking forwards towards seeing the next generation get inspired.

Coda 2013

The NASA Full Fuselage Trainer opened to the public in 2013, and it was just as I’d dreamed.

Footnotes

1 Unfortunately, Feynman’s contributions were minimized in the original report, so it wasn’t until college that I learned of his icewater hijinks.

2 Since they never really cleaned their reflective pools, I liked to pretend that the water was sixty feet deep, and Tranzor Z would be launching any minute.

2 PSC never failed to alternately fascinate and terrify me. Their Mt. St. Helens exhibit gave me nightmares for half a decade.