Monday, August 08, 2005

The Drama of Discovery

We fret about seven astronauts aboard Discovery because it's an amazing feat that they are up there in the first place - and because it's good human drama, with a plot, a past, anticipation, risk and the romance of cutting edge exploration.

Meanwhile, many, many more than seven Americans have died in all sorts of mundane and grusome ways - in hospitals and slums and cars and firefights and vehicular bomb targets far away.

Why do we fret so about the demise of Peter Jennings and the first post-Columbia astronauts and not about our own dangers much closer to home? Let's not forget: driving a car is the probably the most dangerous and potentially destructive thing we'll ever do. The astronauts could land safely and the get creamed on the Gulf Freeway heading to the mall or commuting to work at the JSC for their 9-5 jobs a few months from now.

Last night I got 'The Drama of Discovery' bug, though. I'd pulled a muscle in my back so badly I couldn't much sleep, so around midnight I fired up NASA TV (via Real Player on splotchy dial up, no less) to watch the stop and start video feed and to overhear the sporadic and indecipherable communiques between Mission Control in hellaciously humid Houston and the Discovery, prancing around in a refreshingly dry and sparkling orbit 120 miles above the Earth. Mostly matter of fact, even mundane check lists back and forth, "Now copy," "Roger that."

Then it came at just after 4:05 CDT, the call from the Peter Jennings-like calm of mission communicator Ken Ham, himself an astronaut: "We just can't get comfortable with the stability of the situation for this particular opportunity, so we're going to officially wave you off for 24 hours."

A bit later he called up: "We regret not getting you guys home today, but we feel pretty confident about tomorrow."

Mission Commander Eileen Collins replied: "Well, you guys made the right decision, and we're with you. We're going to enjoy another day on orbit, and we'll see you on Earth tomorrow."

Collins seems like a pleasure. I'd want her to be in command of my mission. And I've been reading about Mission Specialist Steve Robinson, a guy with a great grinnish smile who seems to see the humor, the humility and the awe of his own job, a sort of a regular and rare guy with a renaissance range of interests, the curious and intrepid wonder of a true frontiersman, and the mind of a philosopher at once aware, scientific and sentimental. He gets my vote for Astronaut-I'd-Most-Like-to-Meet. Yes, a lot is riding on that last hour.

But whether on the ground or many miles up, what would that extra day be like this time - the first time that a two week shuttle mission has really been mostly about its last hour of flight? Yes, that's the real drama and potential for spectacular disaster this time around, the Discovery's nearly miraculous-seeming descent from 220 miles up going 17,500 mph to just about zero feet above sea level and zero mph.

You were suited up and about to fire the brakes, a one way trip into the atmosphere, and it was called off ten minutes shy. Back track on lots of systems, become seemingly idle tourists slipping past the black and blue edge of space, thinking the whole time about getting down, getting your feet on the ground.

I was out riding my bicycle in the craggy, quiet, oak dappled and cypress-shaded, svelte-like hills of Texas this weekend, and a red fox ran across the road not too far in front of me. A red fox, light and more graceful than any domesticated creature, wild with a smile, sharing a planet. And here tonight, I just walked outside to see dozens of bats swirling around in the dark with their awesome accuracy, sonar skills and silence. Yes, the world is an amazing and priceless place to come back to and to call home. See what you might lose, reminded how fragile it all is, and you adore it all the more. Yes, that last hour of Discovery's dramatic descent will mean a lot to millions and to the future of mankind, near and far.



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