I’m in Florida, for the landing of the Shuttle Atlantis; the last moments of the Space Shuttle Program, which will occur just a few hours from now as I type.
There is a “carny” atmosphere here, unlike anything I’ve ever felt before – a proud, celebratory, and bitter joviality. Every public venue is filled with people who have lost or are about to lose their jobs. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden sat in the restaurant where I ate, the plane was full of Mission Operations and Engineering folk, and the hotel lobby echoes with the footsteps of busy vacationers, NASA personnel….and ghosts. The sunset is beautiful, and poignant.
Tonight marks 42 years since the Moon landing that galvanized the world. Tomorrow marks the end of the programmatic legacy of Apollo within NASA. And on the screen below this window is an open file pointing to the future – the current version of the Level B requirements for the evolution of the Mission Control Center – MCC21 – which I’m reviewing for work. In a very real way I feel in the ebb and flow around me, the crossroads of past, present, and future.
My personal, gloriously conflicted and convoluted history with NASA’s Mission Operations Directorate (MOD) aside, I have been thinking about the Directorate and its people all night. Of Apollo 8 which is my first, very vivid memory of MCC, of Apollo 11, Apollo 13; of when I physically laid eyes on MCC for the first time (1970′s); when I stood there – in a different control room but still the same – for the first time (1996)…of Challenger, and Return to Flight with my friend Mike Lounge under the command of Dick Covey; and Columbia, and STS114 – richer now for me that I know the current Director of MOD and all that he and his team(s) gave, and gave up, to see it through.
(I have the STS107 pin from Dave “Doc” Brown with me – almost missed the plane because I couldn’t find where I’d put it and wouldn’t leave the house without it.)
In my earlier life as a therapist I counseled many Vietnam War vets, and the intensity of the experience – no matter how agonizing – made it one of the fullest of their lives. For many of them, it was the most alive they had ever been – and possibly ever would be. They struggled to communicate to those closest to them why there was such a tremendous loss in the wake of the war – not just because they had lost limbs, or the illusion of invincibility, or even the loss of self for a while. What they’d lost was the fullness of those moments, the “peak experiences” that come when there is nothing standing between who we are and what we do at the laser-sharp, focused crux of “the wave” – when it and we are all the same thing.
The fiercest of those men and women talked about honor. More than a lifeline, it was what defined them. Years after the war – decades later – those who upheld their own honor, and that of their comrades in arms – regardless of what others thought – those few had survived, while colleagues – though living – had not. Those that knew this had led lives of value to themselves, and to others, even when they struggled, still, with loss.
It is the honor and intensity of MOD and MCC that I’ve been thinking of tonight – and of those who have worked in the Shuttle Program, and in all of the space program(s) – as well as of those to come. Particularly for those who take spaceflight forward into the future, take heed. Though it is not alone in doing so, MOD is the bearer of that legacy of honor – and there is much to learn from its example. Right or wrong, in its best days and in its worst, the honor of MOD and MCC remains intact, through all who have worked there. It is they – and the spirit of all who came before them – who will guide Atlantis safely home tomorrow.
In this day and age – perhaps in any day and age – that is no small thing.
That is everything.