“Dude, shutup. That thing put its dick in space. What’ve you done?”
–Heard in downtown Sacramento
If Tom Wolfe was right and the space program was a cold-war form of single combat, that ancient Greek tradition of having two warriors fight instead of a battle, then today I, like much of California, woke up early (by Californian standards, at least) to see the funeral procession of a fallen hero.
The space shuttle Endeavour.
An orbiter, Endeavour was built to replace Challenger, which had, memorably, exploded on live television in front of a rapt audience of children. I was one of them.
Like many people my age, we had school units about Challenger, studied it, did projects about the civilian crew, which included a school teacher, and then were all herded into our school gyms to watch the ship blow up and everyone upon it die. I was in grade two.
I remember when that weird smoke appeared. I said to my friend. “I think it blew up.”
“No,” he said. “That’s just the shuttle separating from the rocket.”
My next thought, translated into adult, was something like: Shuttles separate? I better shut up. This guy really knows his shit.
The school principle then turned the tv off. I can’t remember what he said. I can remember that he was nervous. And that I had the distinct impression that none of these people had any idea what they were doing or talking about. We were being protected from something but no one seemed sure what. It all seemed wrong. We adopted a posture of mourning.
But, honestly, as far as we knew, these things were supposed to blow up.
That’s how my generation was introduced to the space program. Not through a moon landing, not through improbably heroic Apollo 13, but through white smoke against a blue sky. On television.
And that’s how I’ve so far experienced the space program. Mediated through one glowing screen or another, reading about it, but never actually seeing anything with my own eyes.
That, of course, changed today.
After getting sucked into a Hitchcock marathon on the tv last night, I set my alarm to stun and woke up a few hours later. Poured a coffee, grabbed my phone, lit my pipe and sat on my porch. I had no idea if I’d see Endeavour but, if I missed it, I wouldn’t do so from bed.
A few other planes passed over. I wondered if those were it and checked twitter. Apparently not. Vultures circled. They often do. A tidings of magpies gathered on a tree.
The happiness on twitter surprised me. Endeavour was dead. Yet people were excited to see its corpse strapped to the back of an air-plane and flown over California. Will we one day regard an air-plane pulled by truck the same way? Then a truck pulled by horse? I hope not.
The streets were empty. I heard some cheers from around the way. Or shouts. It was hard to tell. Then a sound like the sky being slowly ripped. There it was. No mistaking it.
Well, that’s something, I thought. You can see worst things from your porch.
It vanished over the horizon. My neighbor, an older lady who’s lived in this hood for fifty years, came running out of her house. She looked up.
“You just missed it,” I said. “But I’ve got some pictures.”
In her driveway, we looked at my phone’s little glowing screen. We chatted. People emerged from their homes, watching the sky. A guy, who looked like white Jesus, rolled up on his bike.
“You see it?” she asked.
“Uh-huh,” White Jesus said. “It was pretty cool.”
“Yeah, a billion dollars worth of cool.”
“At least it didn’t fall off,” I said.
White Jesus rode off. Neighbor and I chatted. We talked about lawns –mine still needs some work– and her lazy son, who lost his job on the base after the latest round of cuts. She asked if I drove. I told her no. Then, just as we were saying our goodbyes, Endeavour returned.
“Good thing, I stayed out,” she said. “I woulda missed it.”
“It’s supposed to be doing a circle,” she said. “Before it gets to LA.”
“Good thing. I thought it’d just gotten lost.”
We smiled, talked a little more. She went inside, where her breakfast was getting cold. Mine, coffee and a smoke, waited for me on my porch. The sky returned to its regularly scheduled programming: A police helicopter.
I don’t know where the magpies went.