April 20th, 2012

lookin' good

On witnessing history

Space Shuttle DiscoveryIt really struck me as I walked in to the hangar housing Discovery--her home of less than 24 hours--that this really was a historic moment in the truest sense of the word. We go to museums, in part, to bear personal witness to history. There we can learn about from whence we came, and from that ponder difficult questions about where we are and where we are going.

Yesterday when Discovery was signed over to the safekeeping of the Smithsonian, a spacecraft that has been an active part of the space program for most of my life became an artifact in a museum. Consider an artifact of over 100 years ago--the 1903 Wright Flyer.  In 1948 that aircraft became part of the Smithsonian's collection [the delay from its last flight owing to bitter disputes between the Wrights and previous museum administrators].  You can see it on display today.

It is conceivable--actually quite likely--that Discovery will be viewed by curious museum-goers in 2112.  The difference, though, will be that for those viewers it will be one of those exhibits that have "always been there."  For us today, I feel like it is significant, important, meaningful to contemplate Discovery: blazing one last time to space and gliding to a final wheels stop a little over a year ago; out on the tarmac yesterday morning; this morning a museum exhibit.

As moving as this was for me a space enthusiast, first inspired by the Space Shuttle as a ten-year-old, what is this transition from machine to artifact like for the men and women that commanded and piloted Discovery? That flew in her as crew members? That supported design, development, launch, missions on orbit, landing, and then preparation to launch again. How hard was it to prepare her for her last flight up the coastline to Virginia, knowing that Discovery would not be launching again?

It's not easy to become part of history, is it?