Including liquid and solid propellants, Discovery will weigh 4.5 million pounds at the moment of liftoff from launch complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center. In just 10 seconds, it will be 800 feet off the ground going straight up at nearly 130 mph. In two minutes, after burning up half its weight in propellant, the spacecraft will be 32 miles up, traveling at some 3,000 mph - faster than a rifle bullet and accelerating at a blistering pace as fuel is consumed and its weight drops off. In eight-and-a-half minutes, the shuttle and its seven occupants will be in orbit, streaking through space at more than 17,000 mph, fast enough to cover 84 football fields in a single heartbeat.
More on the flip side...
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has bluntly stated that the program will end if another vehicle is lost. The shuttle program has been a white elephant of sorts from the day its design was finalized. Too many compromises had to be made for it to live up to its initial promise. And it wasn't as safe as many made it out to be and as 14 brave American men and women tragically proved.
The International Space Station (ISS) is another white elephant. It's in the wrong orbit and also will never live up to its hype. Studies have shown that in order for ISS to even begin to accomplish what it was meant to do would require a permanent crew of at least 7 people. To date the crews have spent the majority of their time just doing maintenance and housekeeping.
President Bush (yeah, I know) has decided that there will be no more space shuttle flights after the year 2010 and possibly sooner. This decideration was made so that NASA could focus more on his ambitious program to develop a new space flight vehicle and return astronauts to the moon, and eventually Mars. ISS still requires 16 assembly flights before it is completed and it's anybody's guess at this time whether or not they can actually be accomplished given the tight schedule. Deciding to end the program once the ISS was completed would have made too much sense I guess, but hey, what do you expect from someone whose age is about to match his IQ?
Others might speculate that his real motive is to militarize space. We must work to make sure that never happens. I take it as a bad sign that the rocket that will take astronauts into space starting in 2014 is named after the god of war. Maybe it's just me.
It's all but certain that once Bush is out of office his grand vision for space exploration will be scrapped no matter which party is in control of the White House and Congress. What emerges in its place is bound to be far less exciting. And for that I am sad. But as Discovery lifts off tomorrow I would ask everyone here, Democrats, Liberals and Progressives to think about what direction the country's space program should go in. Just start to think about it, and please try to remember that its value as an inspiration to young people all over the country from every conceivable background and culture is incalculable. Achievments in space are something the world, even the Arab world, respects and have been a justifiable source of global goodwill for decades. For what it costs to fight the war in Iraq for a week we could have something to be very, very proud of. How long has it been since this nation accomplished something all Americans could proudly point to and say, "We did that!"? Hint: the War on Terror and the War on the Constitution aren't getting it done for me.
I know many Democrats over the years have harshly criticized NASA programs. Walter Mondale almost single-handedly got the space shuttle program shut down before it ever started. The biggest criticism has always been that these programs are a waste of money and resources that could be better spent on earth where we have plenty of problems that need fixing. Mondale called it "an enormous federal boondoggle", and called Nixon's decision to build it an "example of perverse priorities and colossal waste in government spending". I wonder what he would say today about the war in Iraq and the Department of Homeland Security?
My take has always been different, perhaps because as a young man of 11 years old I was transfixed by the sight of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon in July of 1969. A grand achievment in a year of so much discord and anger. A lot happened in the Year of Our Lord 1969. Nixon takes office. The Jets win Superbowl III. First flight of the Boeing 747. B-52s bomb Cambodia. First flight of the Concorde. Hamburger Hill. Last episode of Star Trek. Muhammed Ali convicted for refusing to enter the Army. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. Woodstock. Charles Manson runs wild. Hurricane Camille. Paul is dead. A dozen USSR nuclear tests. SCOTUS ends school segregation. Race riots accross the country. My Lai massacre revealed. 250,000 protest the Vietnam war in DC. Selective Service Draft Lottery. The Black Panthers. 50 million watch Tiny Tim and Miss Vicky get hitched on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. The NY Mets win the World Series.
With all that going on the only 2 things I distinctly remember are the Mets winning the World Series and Apollo 11 landing on the moon. That accomplishment always served as an inspiration to me. And dare I say that without the race to the moon in the 60s I wouldn't be here today. There were other things I could have done with my spare time in the neighborhood I grew up in besides follow the space program and develop an interest in science and engineering. Things that could very well have led me down a different path in life.
So I choose to revel in the accomplishments of our space program and do so despite the fact that most of the companies that do its work are part of the military-industrial complex. I always viewed that work and expenditure as an investment in the future of the planet that didn't involve bullets or bombs or soldiers getting killed for a questionable cause. And they don't classify every piece of paper they generate. For the most part they operate in the open and invite the public to look at what they are doing. I would venture that half of the Pentagon's budget would be eliminated in the name of not wasting money if people actually had the facts about many classified programs going on.
So I invite you all to watch the launch of Discovery tomorrow - weather permitting - at 3:49 PM Eastern time and cheer on the crew of Air Force Col. Steve Lindsey, Navy Cdr. Mark Kelly, Navy Cdr. Lisa Nowak, and Mission Specialists Piers Sellers, Mike Fossum, Stephanie Wilson and Frankfurt native Thomas Reiter. They, too, are heroes and its nice to have heroes who are real and who put their lives on the line, not in pursuit of a flawed foreign policy boondoggle and illegal war of agression, but in furtherence of lifting our eyes toward the stars.
Then, during the flight you can check out sighting opportunities for your location and see the combined shuttle and space station pass overhead. I hope you can still feel the sense of awe, majesty and hope for the future that I always do whenever I see them silently passing 220 miles overhead. The two combined vehicles can be extraordinarily bright and on a clear morning or evening, before sunrise or after sunset, they are hard to miss if you're looking in even approximately the right direction.
Look up once in awhile. Aspire to things that lift the spirit and soul of the nation. In many ways I view our activities in space as a metaphor for our great country. We can do better. We will do better. And maybe show the world along the way that America is capable of more than just starting wars of hegemony and empire to preserve our access to other nations' oil.