Posted by: joevanderfluit | May 6, 2017

Repaying Prometheus: Kennedy Space Center

Do you know who ruined my early education? Not the architect of the system that foisted cursive writing upon me; not Ralph Klein for defunding us so badly the globe in the library and most of the maps still had the USSR on them; not the legitimately psycho fifth grade teacher. It was Roman Emperor Constantine. That jerk converted, dragged the rest of western civilization with him, and made the stories in religion class way more dull than they could have been. What stories did I get? Some carpenter fed some people with some fish. St. Martha made him snacks once and one of the St. Johns got him wet. And yeah, the same woodworker got (ironically?) nailed to some wood which is pretty Metal; and he cured some lepers which was thoughtful yet unimpressive given I can do that with a bottle of pills from the store. But the Greek myths? Now there’s some entertainment that school kids would eat up. Who has time to hear about that time Yeshua of Nazareth talked to a taxman in a tree while Zeus was turning into animals to have sex with women? Who themselves got punished by Zeus’ jealous wife? And a dude was maze-running against a man-eating bull-man? It’s all awesome pulpy drama between lecherous, debaucherous, petty douchebags. And that’s the most important bit: the gods are total jerks and humans are better. Arachne was a better weaver than Athena; Diomedes beat up a bunch of gods (including the god of war) in the war with Troy; Heracles accomplished twelve impossible tasks; and Odysseus survived Poseidon making his trip home a decade-long pain in the ass. Humans could outsmart the gods; and that’s what we’ve done. Wild plants and animals have been tweaked into staples of ludicrously high nutritional yield. Plagues have been eradicated. We’re fiddling with the fundamental building blocks of life to make all sorts of crazy stuff from bacteria that eat plastic to algae that make fuel to tiny dogs that fit into purses. Every July 16th, in my own private madness, I celebrate the day in 1945 that divine wrath became an utterly irrelevant concept. The “Gadget” of the Trinity test showed that man could break apart atoms – that man himself had made – to vaporize a city in but a flash of light. God can threaten the flame of hell all he wants; man packaged it and dropped it out of airplane.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to Prometheus. The titan stole fire from the Olympians and gave it to humans. Zeus chained him to a rock and had an eagle eat his liver every day, only for it to heal every night and for the cycle to repeat. Gross and cruel, but perhaps understandable if Zeus knew we’d tame and train fire for a few millennia, then jam it into a metal tube with a mortal in the pointy end and send the whole works roaring up through his living room. While he was trying to get busy with something else that’s not his wife, probably. Irritating for him I suspect, but pretty awesome for the rest of us.

Rockets are cool, is the point I’m making here. So cool that I’d use money for winning Employee of the Year to fly off to Florida for a couple of days to see Kennedy Space Center. The place where we lit the sky on fire going to places we have no business going._SAM0322

It was truly chicken soup for my soul. A soul eroded by the world’s unwillingness to fully adopt division of labour. See, and pardon moi Français, but I am simply done giving a flying fuck about politics. I don’t care. I’ll do my due diligence and submit my ballot but I refuse to ever mention it again. If that makes me a bad citizen, whatever. It’s all a stupid popularity contest that divides people into an argumentative mud-like slurry. No matter my choices, driven by whatever values I have, someone somewhere will shout me down for it. Applying cold, comforting, sensible logic, the only winning move is not to play and to allow those that do care to have at it. (Evidently, as hear about it all the goddamned time in every goddamned place, plenty of people are willing to, so I don’t feel the least bit bad.) Which is why it was so refreshing to sit in airport terminals and watch planes come and go, and to get into a rental car, switch on the radio, and hear Cuban music instead of the dreaded words “Conservative caucus”. It was a long due opportunity to unplug from the bizarre world in which factions of otherwise civilized people descend into toxic vitriol while fellating whichever smarmy smiling sack of fetid rotting dicks cashed in enough of their humanity to ascend the ranks of the glorified middle-school social ladder that is politics, and just go look at neat things smart people made. O, and what things they made.

_SAM0047

Atlantis. Atlantis is what they made. And she is a thing of such breathtaking majesty I literally had tears in my eyes as the movie screen lifted away to show her posed in glory, the idol of this temple of man. Where ever other spaceship before (and now since) is little more than a cramped truncated cone, this machine was the next giant leap for mankind. This was a striking white thing of winged elegance against the backdrop of cold space. It wasn’t just the pointy tip of a rocket; it was a habitat and a workshop and a thing that could soar through the air on the way home with grace and poise. She did not crudely ride parachutes into the ocean like some dollar store green army man. She could fly.

Atlantis is the prettiest damn thing I have ever seen.

She lounges there on her pedestal like a marble goddess of antiquity. Of course, she’s taken a beating, plated in a hodgepodge of fabric blankets and mismatched tiles, rolled in thirty years’ of soot and grime; and aerodynamically speaking she’s a bit of a brick. But this is what the rational part of the brain knows, and he’d been garroted, drowned, dismembered, and buried in an oil drum out in the back forty by another bit. The bit that saw the name “Atlantis” stenciled on the side. The other old pedantic part knew that name came from an old-timey vessel of discovery, a sailing ship of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. But the five-year-old who once held in his hands a toy space shuttle remembered something more. He remembered that he looked at the included sticker sheet that read “Columbia” and “Challenger” and “Discovery” and “Atlantis” and “Endeavour” and for reasons only a five-year-old can fathom stuck on “Atlantis”. That name and that shuttle stuck in his head and his heart as the pinnacle of wonder, intelligence, ingenuity, bravery, curiosity – the very core of humanity that kid has seen in Homo sapiens for all these years. Atlantis, that glorious machine, is beautiful because she is the human spirit, wrought physical.

She is a thing that went charging face first – on a pillar of fire – into the lifeless howling dark, and then had to dive back into a scorching inferno to get home, despite her frankly shocking fragility. That is as human as it gets. For a species that can be killed by swallowing a bite of snack food incorrectly we’ve been utterly unstoppable, putting hands and feet and eyes in the very last places we should be. It was suicide to come down from the trees; it was suicide to leave Africa; it was suicide to venture onto the oceans; into the depths; into the sky; and eventually into the freezing deadly void of space. But here we are, delicate, complicated things thumbing our noses at the “natural order”.  That’s what Atlantis did, thirty-three times. She, like her sisters Challenger and Columbia, could be brought down by no more than a cold day or a piece of foam; her violent launch described in a quote from an engineer as “…bolting a butterfly to a bullet”. Yet she could withstand 215 decibels of sound pressure on ignition; accelerating from 0-28,000 km/h straight up in eight minutes through the burning of 1.75 million kilograms of highly explosive fuel; the vacuum and -100°C chill of of low Earth orbit; and the stresses of supersonic atmospheric flight heating her hull to 1650°C. She was one of us: paradoxically shockingly fragile and astonishingly resilient, skewed to the latter by intelligence and ingenuity.

Atlantis was the first shuttle to send a spacecraft to another planet, and did so twice. Magellan left her hold to map Venus; Galileo to study Jupiter. She captured and serviced the Hubble Space Telescope, and did the most heavy lifting in making a permanent home for mankind in orbit with the International Space Station. She was a movie star, appearing in both Armageddon and Deep Impact. A ship after my own heart, she lived to the mantra of “simplify and add lightness”, losing the ability to draw power from the ISS and forgoing the long-duration plumbing upgrades given to her sisters. She was the truck of the fleet; a hardworking girl that kept at it until after all her sisters all retired. In 2011, when her wheels stopped for the last time on the KSC runway, Atlantis hung up her rockets and took up residence in this cathedral of human achievement, taking tribute from those that come to thank her for going in peace for all mankind.

_SAM0114

Atlantis does not rest alone, either. On the ground floor, behind glass in a hall bathed in gentle blue light, her fallen kin accept their mourners. Fourteen cabinets of personal items, a fuselage panel from Challenger, and Columbia’s windshield frame serve as a humbling reminder that we always have something left to learn; that the march forward is not easy; that there still be dragons over the horizon; that we’re still at the heart of it a bunch of monkeys straying where we don’t belong. Earth is the jealous sort; she doesn’t like it when we defy our place in nature and definitely doesn’t like it when we slip her surly bonds entirely. So she sent a message and dealt she shuttle program a couple of black eyes. But humans have a long, glorious history of ignoring what she has to say. It’s what we do and in our nature to send a louder message back; to the planet itself, the annoying laws of gravity, the old gods, or whatever else we think may be listening. Once upon a time we did exactly that, and that strongly worded letter was just down the road.

Six miles by bus from the rest of the visitor center, a gigantic building houses another vehicle, a monstrous titan of a thing that, when seen, defies all preconceived notions of what is possible. The Saturn V._SAM0264

Where Atlantis is a thing of beauty to behold, the Saturn oozes a tingly sensation of pure furious power. It is the ultimate in nerd rage, George McFly taking that swing at Biff where Biff is a 5.97×1024 kg rock and George is every white-shirted, horn-rimmed, narrow-tied, slide-ruled guy sick and tired of being held down by 9.8 meters per second2 of acceleration into the core. The loudest, most powerful, fastest vehicle wrought by the hands of man to take that fire stolen from the gods and to put it where even they couldn’t: the Moon. And then just to show how humans roll, they’d eventually squeeze in a quick game of golf and bring along a car. Every specification of the beast is staggering. A quick application of Google-Fu reveals that the Saturn V rocket is taller than the tallest building in my hometown, a sixteen storey building, by more than two hundred feet. The first stage burned 13,500 kilograms of kerosene and liquid oxygen per second. Each of the five main engines on that stage was fed by a turbine fuel pump that generated 55,000 horsepower. At full throttle the fuel pump system alone made more power than an entire nuclear-powered Nimitz-class aircraft carrier at full steam. The fifth engine had to be shut down early to limit acceleration to four G – equivalent to the force you’d feel in car going 0-144 km/h in one second. The solid-fueled Launch Escape Tower meant to pull the Apollo crew module to a safe distance if something went wrong made almost double the thrust of the Redstone rocket that put Alan Shepard and later Gus Grissom into sub-orbit. The estimated deadly blast radius of the fueled rocket in the event of an accident was set at five kilometers, and on the first launch its ferocious low-frequency noise damaged buildings well past that. Clearly, this was the thing that showed the gods who was boss now. Though not without a fight: Apollo 12 was struck by lightning at least twice on its way up, scrambling its telemetry and guidance. Which, with a skyscraper-sized 3 million kilogram bomb built to give stuffy arrogant gods an almighty slap in the face, is kind of an issue. An issue that was solved with the flick of a single obscure switch. SCE to AUX. No big deal. Because people are pretty awesome.

That’s why I had to go. A pilgrimage of unshakeable faith; not in bronze age fairy tales but in Homo sapiens. Because I’m sick of division and fear. I’m sick of it being 2017 – forty-eight years since man went to the moon – and we still argue about race issues and gender issues and just so many other things that we need to solve because we’re better than this and there’s so much more out there to challenge us. If I don’t live to see another human land on another celestial body I swear – not to god but to Man – that I will haunt this earth until our stagnation consumes us and we fade into obscurity and extinction on a tiny blue rock in the remote ass-end of the galaxy. But I don’t think we will. Because humanity is awesome. Except Constantine. Jerk.

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