Monday, February 8, 2010

Shuttle Power

I was reading last night about the waterwheel and how it transformed Medieval Europe.  The Domesday Census of England that was ordered by William the Conquerer in 1086 noted that there were over six thousand waterwheel-powered mills in over three thousand locations.  The waterwheel was used by the Romans and may even date back to the Greeks.  But in Medieval Europe, it blossomed. For the first time, wide-spread use of machine power transformed society.

With waterwheels on my mind as I went to bed, I set my alarm for 4 AM to watch one of our own versions of the power of the machine - the last scheduled night launch of a Space Shuttle.  We are visiting my wife's sister, who lives just south of Daytona, FL.  The Shuttle Endeavor (officially, Mission STS 130), was supposed to go up the night before but a low cloud deck scrubbed the launch.  We have tried before to see a launch from near the Kennedy Space Center but the iffy nature of launches has never let us see one up close.

NASA has their own cable channel which is also streamed on their website.  So I decided to watch on my laptop from the backyard of my sister-in-law's house (about 50 miles north of the Cape).  The night sky was filled with broken clouds.  I worried that the light pollution from city street lights might obscure my view.

The countdown went flawlessly.  I watched on my laptop, cradled in my arms, as over six million pounds of liftoff thrust launched Endeavor into the night sky.

At first, I saw nothing.  Then to the south, I could see the clouds backlit as if shrouding an intense fire.  But this fire was moving very quickly towards me.  Finally, the moving light broke free of the clouds and I could see the long plume of the rocket engine moving very quickly and silently across the black sky.  It moved so much faster than I expected and passed by quickly, all still silent.  And then, the most eerie rumble came rolling upward in intensity.  The sound was trying, without success, to catch up with the light.  Even fifty miles away, the rumble could be felt as much as heard. What a thrill!

In the nine minutes that I stood out in the cold pre-dawn air, a Space Shuttle leaped from its home at Cape Canaveral into earth orbit.  Nine minutes.  It has taken me longer than nine minutes just to compose this blog.  It takes less time to launch six astronauts into orbit than it takes me to drive to the local convenience store.  I thought of our ancestors and their waterwheels.  They could never, in their wildest imaginings, have thought that their descendants would control such immense machine power.

There are only four Space Shuttle missions remaining before the venerable vehicles are retired.  Let's hope that the private enterprise initiatives to replace the Space Shuttle come through soon.  Otherwise, our astronauts will be thumbing their way to other lands to get into space.  And the United States will be the poorer for it.

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