Thoughts from a recent visit to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
I’m sitting in front of the space shuttle Discovery. The infamous heat tiles, white on the top and black on the bottom, are before me. They are scuffed and blackened, some have been replaced, the black ones, like squares of new tire rubber. Hinges on the bay doors made of industrial metal, steel, black and gray and white, singed by the heat of reentry, I assume. Such ordinary hinges. They could be the hinges on of a barn door, on the gate to a steel foundry. Small utility access ports like on an RV float above the skinny part of a wing. It does not look like this on television.
The front – prow? – is windowed like a jet, four windows like the partitioned eye of an arachnid. It has been home to astronauts proud to be part of the space team. This white-and-black shell protects the fragile human life not meant for the vacuum of space, not meant for the harshness of extra-Earth atmosphere environment. Discovery seems like a black and white beast, an orca from my own neighborhood waters of Puget Sound. It is hard to imagine sitting on top of the massive explosive rockets, the orange fuel tanks that raised this vessel to beyond earth orbit. The feeling of being thrown backward must be the same as when a train suddenly lurches forward, must have been immense. Could you breathe? Could you imagine the adventure that was to come, the entrance into that elite band of those who had left the Earth and gone into space?
And now, it sits here like a dinosaur on display at the local Natural History museum. Its day is past. The technology that brought it forth, largely of the ‘70s and ‘80s, is now past history. It will never fly again. Does it dream?