NASA's PAO announced this week that the orbiter Atlantis will make the majestic move of a few yards from her hanger at the Kennedy Space Center to the Vehicle Assembly Building. This is normally an important mark in the launch cycle, as the VAB is where the orbiters are mated to "the stack"-- the solid rocket boosters and external tank that will fuel the space shuttle's ascent into orbit. It is a procedure known as "rollover." Atlantis, however, won't be getting down and dirty with any fuel tanks, external or otherwise. She'll be heading right back to her little house as soon as workers finish some renovation there. Celibacy, dear fleet, until we have our orbital house in order. There is talk that President Bush (the W one) will, at a December 17th speech on the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' flight, back a return to the Moon-- this time to establish a permanent presence. I'm kind of tearing up just typing this, as I have always sorrowed over the cancellation of Apollo. We simply chucked mankind's greatest technological achievement just as we were really getting the hang of this whole escape velocity business. Politics brought us to the Moon, and politics brought us right back to Earth again. When I worked at the Kennedy Space Center, I always used to point out to visitors a poignant break in the piping that lines the road to the launch pads: It marks a point where Werner Von Braun planned to build yet another pad for a rocket he called the Nova, which was designed to take us to Mars. I don't think I have to tell you that the pad was never constructed. The gap just hangs there, overgrown, empty and waiting. How bittersweet it will be for my former co-workers to watch Atlantis ease out of her little house... only to wheel right back in again a few weeks later. And how glorious it will be when we once again nudge at the edge of that gravitational envelope.
December 5, 2003