Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Last Night Launch

I know this not because I have been good at keeping track of NASA events since I last worked there in 1999 but because a friend recently returned from Cocoa Beach where he watched that launch. (That reminded me a little of the night launch of one of the astronauts who had been my student. He invited Donnie and me to join in his family in celebrating the launch at a reception where he joined us on video since all the astronauts on the crew were quarantine prior to flight. As it turned out, we never made it to the up-close-and-dangerous launch near the pad on Cape Kennedy because Donnie had to return to work, so we turned over our special passes to local friends, Linda and Robert, who took their grandson. It was a dream come true for them, and I always felt good that we were unable to attend because Linda died from cancer unexpectedly just a few months later.)

Well, back to the last launch, I suppose I am not the only person intrigued to know what “last” really signifies. Is it the last of a become-routine 20-year-old program that will subsequently come up with new and exciting events to come? After all, the International Space Station (ISS) is going to continue orbiting the earth with additional crews aboard, brought up by the Soyuz capsule from Baikonur, Kazkhstan, a capsule that is intensely small (I have been in the model at Gagarin Center for the Training of Cosmonauts at Star City, Russia where the cosmonauts and astronauts train, so I know just how small. I am under five foot, and even I felt wedged in.) Or is it now an opportunity for the space program to migrate to commercial companies? After all, all good things must come to an end, right? Or do they?

There seems to be a wide-spread fascination with last things. Look at all the movies with that word in their title: The Last Samurai, Last of the Mohicans (a book, too), Last Man Standing, The Last Starfighter, and many more. I am sure you can list a number of additional ones with no effort at all.

I imagine most of the “last” stories a sense of loss (in that something is going to be anymore) and a sense of gain (in that something new may be coming along it replace the last whatever it was). When the space program began the two superpowers of the world were the USA and the USSR. For decades, we were in a race for space domination. Then, along came the Soyuz-Apollo mission. The astronauts and cosmonauts found out that they had more common interests and concerns than differences, and the space programs found that they could progress more rapidly through collaboration than through competition. During the last decade of the Cold War, while the two countries sparred with each other, the space programs developed join programs, including joint missions to Space Station Mir and culminating in the ISS program, which always has a mixed crew—if the commander is American, the crew is Russian and vice versus. So, since hearing of my friend’s observation of the last night launch, I have been reviewing in my mind the history of space flight and especially the exciting years of 1998-1999 when I was contracted to put together a language program for the ISS program, due to launch a couple of years later. Isn’t reviewing what we do with last events?

There have been a number of other lasts in my life —- the last child, the last day in any number of locations, the last course before being earning a degree, the last day at various jobs, and more. None of them were stopping points but stepping stones to new adventures or a new turn in the journey of life. What have been the lasts in your life and where have they led you?

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