No launch, but time well spent

Ill blows the wind that profits nobody.

–Henry VI, part III, scene 2

After two days of anticipation, the Delta II rocket with the GRAIL satellites were still sitting on Launch Complex 17.

While the rains held off and the sun was shining, strong upper-level winds kept NASA from launching the mission on Thursday, to the dismay of the 150 people attending the space agency’s 25th Tweetup. The mission was rescheduled for Friday morning and quickly postponed again for technical reasons.

It finally launched on Saturday. I wasn’t there. I’m back home, back to everyday life.  Being at NASA was a lot more fun. But the experience over those two days was good enough to say I’d probably do it again someday.

We got to see things and meet people that most Americans — even the most enthusiastic of space geeks — rarely get the chance to do. I saw good things AND bad things. Here’s a sample of both:

Good: We were able to explore the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building, the huge structure built to assemble Apollo moon rockets. It was empty, of personnel and projects, save for one corner. Behind a single chain link fence, not 30 feet away, the shuttle Endevour sat parked, as a handful of workers milled about.

Bad: Endevour was being gutted, in preparation for its final trip to the California Science Center in Los Angeles, where it will sit on display. Much of the airframe between the front windows and its nose, where thrusters and avionics once sat, was missing. The ship looked tired. I think aircraft look best when they’re ready to fly. This reminded me of an autopsy table.

Good: Our next stop was the Complex 39 Press Site, where thousands of journalists covered manned spaceflight since the 1960s. I hadn’t been there since covering a launch in 1984 and it brought back a lot of memories.

Bad: Since the shuttle program is over, the site is essentially abandoned. The grassy area around the famous countdown clock is overgrown with weeds. The clock itself is rusting and in disrepair. Buildings erected by the Associated Press,  CBS and others, look deserted.

NASA is undergoing the brutal Darwinian crunch that the rest of the nation is experiencing. The agency is becoming a shell of its former self; dealing with smaller and smaller budgets, and more and more criticism by people who don’t understand the larger picture.

Since the shuttle program was retired this spring, the U.S. is incapable of getting people to space for the first time in 50 years. This is huge, people.

NASA is doing the science it can with the money it has been given and it’s doing some real good work. But without high-profile manned missions, it will be harder to catch the public’s attention and harder to prove its value to the nation and the world. It’s relying on space geeks, like those of us attending the Tweetup, to spread the word through social media. While that’s smart and budget-friendly, I’m just not sure how effective it is.

In times like these — especially in times like these — we need NASA. We need to dream, to accomplishing something even beyond our imaginations. Something audacious and gutsy. Something American.

As JFK said, we do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. That’s the American spirit I grew up with. Are we up to the challenge?

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