Now go outside and look at the sky.
An End and a Beginning
Yesterday morning I got up an hour early at 5am and after some breakfast I loaded up my bike and pedaled through the still-dark Sausalito. Going south, following the waterfront and then the steep climb up Alexander Avenue to Highway 101 and the Golden Gate Bridge.
This was no ordinary morning and not my usual commute. In a few hours I expected to see the Space Shuttle Endeavour pass through the Golden Gate on the back of a Jumbo Jet. Great things were afoot and nothing could have stopped me from seeing this.
My plan led me all the way up along the southern end of the Marin Headlands with a short and very steep hike at the end to the top of Slackers Ridge, which is the first peak in the headlands that you see when you cross the bridge going north.
It promised to be a good day. Just as I arrived at the top the sun rose over the East Bay hills and the fog had never fully made it into the Bay.
I had a few hours before the Shuttle would arrive and while I was sitting there in the stubbly grass between low, wind-blown brush, I started thinking about what this means... "The last flight of the Shuttle era!" as it was announced in many newspapers.
Being a parent gives one a very different perspective on time. By spending all this time with a small baby and then a toddler growing up, it is possible to reach back further in your own memory of your childhood, nearly-forgotten distant shadows coming into sudden focus.
Luke is now two years old and I was two years old when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Too young for any memories, but I do remember standing in front of a TV with grown-ups all around talking about the moon - my guess is it was Apollo 16 or 17 when I was between four and five years old. So my relationship with Apollo - just missed it by a few years - is the same as Luke's impression will be of the Space Shuttles.
This also means, that in a very meaningful way, the Space Shuttle is the defining feature of space exploration for my generation. Whatever comes next - manned missions to asteroids or Mars, both at least twenty years out - will be a symbol for my son's generation. I may still be around to watch the Mars landings with Luke, but whoever steps on the red soil will be much closer to his age than mine.
So on this beautiful morning in September of 2012, Luke was still a little bit too young to hike to the top of Slackers Ridge. For him and his generation, the Space Shuttle will forever be a museum piece. Impossibly big and clumsy, with a certain unmistakeable 1970s style. Brute force pushing an airplane into space. More power than brains.
For my generation this is a bittersweet moment, no doubt. We are the in-between generation, the Moon had already been done and Mars was just out of reach.
But we had to spend time in Earth orbit, working out the kinks in space travel, learning how to build complex structures in space. And look at it! The ISS is the real legacy of our generation - a real, full-featured, huge space station with a 6-person permanent crew, bristling with scientific instrumentation and robots. And in addition, robotics has advanced to astonishing levels with the recent Curiosity landing on Mars being an amazing showcase for what we can do now.
So it is time to move on. Time to say goodbye to the Shuttle. It was a good ride, and sometimes a scary and even deadly one. But we've learned a lot. And now the kids can figure out how to land on Mars.