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Posted at 03:00 PM ET, 07/06/2011

A last chance to live the space dream

(Thanks to Joel for letting me guest post. I’ve always wanted a boodle.)

I'm sitting in BWI, ready for my flight to Orlando to cover the final space shuttle launch for The Post, and I'll confess – this is a safe place, right? – that I'm excited. I've been a space nerd my whole life, and this last shuttle flight will be my first in-person. It’s the last chance to feel the blast of those big engines -- it hits you in the chest, reverberates. At least, that's what I hear.

Like so many of my generation (I'll be 40 any minute now), my space dream ignited with the release of Star Wars in 1977 and blasted ahead four years later when I watched the Columbia and its bright white fuel tank soar off the launch pad with my 4th-grade classmates. Not as cool as an X-wing fighter, but it was real. People were flying into space. Someday, I would too, I dreamed.

So did millions of others. The shuttle held out hope that the regular people -- the non-fighter jocks, the teachers, the engineers, the reporters -- could all zoom into orbit.

Recently, I spoke with National Air & Space Museum curator Valerie Neal, who got closer to the dream than most. In the 1980s, she worked at Johnson Space Center, donned scuba gear and guided astronauts in underwater training. Neal got a little misty as she recounted the history of the shuttle, and her own space dreams. At one point, she told me, NASA sketched plans to launch a passenger cabin in the shuttle's cargo bay. Load it up with 40 or 50 seats and haul up a gang of dreamers for the greatest thrill ride of all time.

Those fantasies seem naïve now -- and yet, a half million or more space fans are streaming toward Kennedy Space Center, edging as close as they can to that final moment when fire pushes the shuttle stack skyward, snapping earthly constraints. As Atlantis lifts off -- with luck, on Friday morning -- you can bet many of them will be imagining, wishing, pretending to feel the strain, that high-G gorilla squatting on their chests as the Earth falls away and they head up, up, up toward that magnificent vista, the one astronauts speak of reverently: the spiritual moment, catharsis even, when, for the first time, they witness the Earth as a planet. The atmosphere a shimmery skin; the continents rolling by, borders unseen.

Hearing astronauts describe that moment makes me think NASA should have sent a poet. Bring in Billy Collins http://www.billy-collins.com/ for a few years, loft him skyward, set his spirit aloft so that he can limn it for the rest of us. So we can get a taste of the ride.

It turns out NASA did hire a writer: Thomas D. Jones, a Baltimore native who flew four shuttle missions. In 2006 Jones published Skywalking , a treat of a read for us space dreamers. Jones kept a verbal diary on his flights; vivid detail suffuses the book. "The whole point," he said, "was to put you in the cabin with me." He does.

Here's Jones's description of his first lift-off, on Endeavour in 1994:

A rumble shook the stack from ten stories below as the main engines coughed fire and shivered their way up to full power. Six seconds tumbled by as the entire stack rattled with the barely restrained fury of a million pounds of thrust. "Three at a hundred!" Kevin said over the rumble as the engines shouldered Endeavour sideways, steel booster casings flexing under the load. Still bolted to the pad, the twin rocket boosters took up the strain, then sprang back to the vertical….
Wham! Twin boosters ignited and instantly added six million pounds of thrust to the fight against gravity. Gravity lost -- just as explosive charges shattered the eight nuts holding the SRBs to the pad. Endeavour jolted into the air, sending a crash-bang wallop through the cabin.
A giant mallet hammered my seat from below, and I felt the upward surge. Swiveling booster nozzles whipsawed us left, right, forward, and back, striving for the vertical. It was all I could do to plant a shaky finger on my kneeboard's digital stopwatch and stab it into life, my sole duty during ascent. The clock is running!

And now the clock runs down on the space shuttle. The dreamers are left to wonder what's next. During the moon landings that inspired so many shuttle astronauts, including Jones, the dream stretched beyond winning the space race and besting the Soviets. It was a dream of adventure, and a better future, a day when nations joined together to colonize space, to set up shop on the moon and Mars, to stretch out and become a multi-planet species.

Today no one at NASA will even articulate such a grand vision. And Jones, for one, is angry. "It's embarrassing to have to hitch rides on a Russian spaceship," he told me.

President Obama says NASA will fly a crew to an asteroid by 2025, but that kind of talk feels more like a wish than a plan. Congress passes budgets eight months late, leaving NASA managers with no idea of how much they’ll have on hand to spend. And now the nation tightropes perilously close to defaulting on trillions of dollars of debt. America isn't flying so high these days. 

But the space dreamers will still dream. Over the next few days I'll be speaking to as many of them as I can. I'll seek out folks who have driven cross-country and flown in from distant corners of the globe -- the crazy mess of space nerds and geeks and dreamers descending on the Space Coast for one last glimpse. It'll be weird and wonderful: a scene of celebration, and of mourning, too. Check back here, and in the science section http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science, and follow along for the ride.

By  |  03:00 PM ET, 07/06/2011

 
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