This week, on its way to its final resting place at a Los Angeles museum, the space shuttle Endeavour flew over Houston, Texas, before landing to spend the night at Ellington Field. Since this was the last time I would likely ever see a space shuttle (in this current incarnation) in flight, I decided that I needed to drop everything and head down to Ellington airport and see it and photograph it myself. And I’m so glad I did …
… but not just for the reasons you might think.
Of course, seeing the actual space shuttle up-close-and-personal was pretty incredible — and I wrote about the experience on my blog as soon as I returned home — but now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I realize that the amazing technological accomplishments that NASA represents was only part of the story. What I didn’t write about yesterday was the amazing spirit and camaraderie that settled over the viewing area of that air strip, as everyone gathered to see something that we all knew we would probably never see again. People began sharing stories about their love of space travel: older folks told the younger ones what it felt like to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon for the first time. People my age talked about where they were when Challenger exploded. And little kids (whose parents, with more foresight that me, had pulled them out of school or daycare) shared with excitement that there was “a rover on Mars — right now!” The communal sense of anticipation was palpable.
And then, when Endeavour finally approached, the crowd fell silent.
Later on during the day, a friend who had read my blog post admitted to me that she didn’t really think much one way or another about the space shuttle, and it was all I could do to contain my shock. I was two years old when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and I’ve lived a great portion of my life in Houston — I feel like I literally grew up with the manned space program. So I admit to being considerably biased when I responded to her, dude, space shuttles are AWESOME. The space program represents humans literally conquering the impossible. They represent the collaboration of the best minds, often representing countries from around the world. In a time when there is so much conflict in the United States around political differences, economic differences and even race differences, the space program gives something for all Americans to believe in. To root for.
The space program gives folks — all folks, from all walks of life — a universal reason to dream.