America! Fuck yeah!

23 Aug 2009

Three. Two. One.

They don't need to say "zero". By then nobody's listening. We're staring at the magnesium-bright flare just two miles across the bay, watching the slender rocket arc into the pre-dawn sky.

I immediately feel a surge of.. pride, I suppose, at being a member of a species that can pull this off. This bomb-with-fins, technically a Delta-2 rocket, is carrying the 49th GPS satellite, technology that already borders on magic even without the complexity of putting it into orbit. How much can be wrong with a civilisation that can put something like this together and have it actually work?

This is geek porn, pure fantasy. My involvement was limited to waking up at 3:30 and driving the 100km to the launch site, and I'm buzzed; the people who actually built this must be feeling like unstoppable giants right now. At work I "launch" web sites, but I'm going to stop using that word. Typing "cap production deploy" is not a launch.

This is a launch.

It's been an interesting day. The early start makes everything a little surreal, from the 4am trip to Steak-n-Shake just as it's closing to get my morning coffee, to my first real drive on the wrong side of the road. As the small crowd walks back down the jetty after the two-minute show, the sun is rising along the long, straight beach, and the first joggers are out. I bask in the lifeguard's ten-foot chair, then drive off to try to find a beachside cafe for a proper breakfast. An hour later, I end up at Denny's.

Later, at the Kennedy Space Center, I get the chance to see how it was done. It's heavy on the propaganda and light on the science, but even the rather overexcited videos can't take away from the sheer coolness of the place.

The people are just as interesting as the gadgets. Two astronauts give talks every day, somehow keeping it fresh and interesting even though they must have done it thousands of times before. Based on the two I saw, they're not at all gung-ho fighter pilots; the steel doesn't show. But it's there.

And, later, I get to see an actual Apollo capsule, complete with charred edges from re-entry. Knowing what it is and where it's been adds incredible gravity to the experience. Only military hardware has the same coolness factor, and enjoyment of that is always tainted by the guilty knowledge that it's only useful for blowing people up.

There's only one problem; it's all so old.

Now, I know that space is the wrong place for bleeding-edge, untested technology. But even the replica of the shiny new International Space Station has CRT screens! It looks like something from 80s sci-fi, and perhaps it is. NASA's, indeed humanity's, greatest spacefaring achievement was over forty years ago.

I'd already resolved to tell my host to see a shuttle launch at all costs, but she'll have to be quick. There are only a few more, because they're retiring the remaining shuttles, something the otherwise open and frank staff are reluctant to talk about. And perhaps I wasn't the only one who sensed a note of falseness when the excited video presenter announced that "With the space shuttle retiring, NASA is going back to the moon on the new Ares rockets!"

No. That can't be right. We're not going "back". We're going onwards, onwards and upwards, right?