When She Flew,
I refer to last week as “geek week,” not only because that’s when Apple began selling their new, highly coveted iPhone 5, but also due to the spectacle of a low-altitude flyover of much of Southern California by the Space Shuttle Endeavour. Not to be outdone, my lovely and talented wife deemed last Friday – the day both events actually happened – as “nerd-vana.” (Kindly address your letters to her, not me.)
While I’m sure the world will see many more versions of the iPhone in years to come, Friday’s flyover was billed as the last ever “flight” of a space shuttle orbiter. Pretty heady stuff.
Mounted on top of a modified Boeing 747, the Endeavour’s flight plan over the Golden State included the skies above Sacramento, Santa Monica, El Segundo, the Getty Center and Griffith Park Observatory, a “money shot” flying low over the iconic Hollywood sign, a quick pass over JPL and the east end of the Crescenta Valley, then south to Disneyland and finally, back to LAX where it would land one last time, never to fly again.
As the son of an engineer/private pilot/aerospace junkie, during the heyday of the shuttle program I heard regular commentary describing the orbiters as the most complicated, over-engineered machines ever built by mankind. Dad would watch the broadcast of a shuttle launch or landing, shake his head and say that there were so many thousands of moving parts, interconnected electronic circuitry, first-of-its-kind software and critical systems in those kludges that even a hiccup in the works could cause the things to fall out of the sky.
I’ll never forget watching one orbiter do exactly that one awful January morning in 1986 when – 73 seconds after liftoff from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral – the Shuttle Challenger exploded high above the Atlantic Ocean. My soon-to-be-wife and I were among the many millions watching the tragedy as it played out on live TV.
In a coincidental quirk of fate, the shuttle that flew over the Crescenta Valley last week was the one built to replace the ill-fated Challenger orbiter. I hope that in the years to come, the sight of the Endeavour flying over JPL, then banking left and low over the San Rafael Hills will be the image I remember more often than that awful smoke plume of the Challenger’s twin solid rocket boosters corkscrewing out of control as the orbiter with seven crew members on board disintegrated in mid-air. Sometimes our reach exceeds our grasp with truly painful results.
On a much lighter note, waiting and wilting in the near-100-degree heat with the thousands of other people near JPL last Friday, I quickly realized that the real show was already happening on the ground all around me. I’ve never seen so many near-collisions between cars and trucks and motorcycles and motorhomes and cyclists and pedestrians and even strollers. As the hours passed and the temperature soared, shuttle spectators became increasingly distracted and impatient – those arriving too late to park legally simply double- and triple-parking wherever they felt like it – even on the 210 freeway. Just amazing.
Everywhere, car stereos blared the voices of KFI radio reporters calling out the current location of the shuttle over Southern California. The reporters’ breathless over-the-air updates echoed off the parched hillside above Linda Vista. And then, suddenly, there it was, gliding above the Arroyo Seco towards the waiting multitude. A scorched white, winged testament to a nation of innovators, risk takers and bold imagineers. When the space shuttles flew, our nation soared.
I hope those daring days of wonder and exploration are not behind us, and I look forward to when we once again have the visionary fortitude and economic firepower to reach for the stars. In the meantime, however, I think we already have more than enough evidence – judging by the crowd around me last Friday, at least – that space cadets and other-worldly beings are already among us.
I’ll see you ’round town.