Earlier this week the space shuttle Atlantis took off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on the fifth – and what is said to be final – repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. Launched in April 1990, Hubble has produced some spectacular images over the years, greatly expanding our knowledge of the universe well beyond anyone’s expectations. Although it’s getting a bit long-in-the-tooth now, technologically speaking, it is hoped that this last hurrah by the crew of STS-125 will give the old soldier 70-times more discovery capability and extend its life by another 5 or 6 years.
A lot of people in America take the space shuttle for granted. Understandable, I suppose, after 125 flights and the government’s plans to mothball the fleet in a year or two. But I’m not one of them. For me, every launch still brings a sense of wonder, pride, and – truth be told – just a touch of anxiety.
Not many people know this, but back in 1976 or ’77 when NASA began recruiting candidates for the space shuttle astronaut program, I applied. I was fresh out of engineering school, working for the Navy on their prestigious F-14A fighter program, and it sounded exciting. Fortunately NASA got hundreds, maybe even thousands, of resumes from people a lot more qualified than me, so I didn’t make it. But that disappointment did little to diminish my interest in the program. Maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic.
It’s often been said that one of the fringe benefits of being a journalist is that, from time to time, you get to live vicariously through others. If that’s true, then perhaps I finally made it after all. About a year ago I got the opportunity to interview Andrew Feustel, one of the astronauts aboard Atlantis this week. Although it’s his first trip into space, he will be making 3 of the 5 space walks necessary to complete the mission. Throughout my career I’ve had the privilege of speaking with champion athletes, rock stars, and politicians, but I don’t think any of them got me as pumped up as I was after speaking with Feustel.
Why? I don’t know. Maybe a tiny piece of that cocky young engineer who dared to dream some 30-odd years ago still survives. Or maybe I’m just one of those techno-nerds who grew up during the space race and still believes the key to unlocking the mystery of why we’re here is out there. Either way, this week my thoughts and prayers are on board Atlantis with Feustel and his comrades. Good luck, my friend. May your mission go smoothly, and may you return to Earth safely.