This week The Endeavor was riding down California streets at two miles per hour, inching its way to its final destination. My friends were posting pictures of it on Facebook, many of them employees of NASA who knew a lot about the shuttle program because they had actually worked on it.
But I didn’t need to see those pictures, as my son Christopher had already talked me into seeing the shuttle in person a few weeks ago. We were tired from the two hours of traffic we had to fight just to get a parking place at Ellington Field. It was a school night, but as Christopher kept reminding me, afraid that I would change my mind as we crawled to our destination, “We can’t miss history.” Even a child could see the finality of it.
We walked for what seemed like forever, and it felt like a pilgrimage to a shrine that was to be closed for a very long time. There were so many people, and it got darker and darker, and I realized that the many summers of space camp that Christopher had attended really had made an impression: he knew so many facts and figures about the shuttle, that it made me ashamed I didn’t know more about it. I was an American, right? But Christopher filled me in, and when I saw it, illuminated by both artificial and moon light, it really was gleaming, with clear signs of wear and tear on its white body, “Endeavor” in huge letters juxtaposed by the American flag. It seemed to me that it wasn’t just the end of one super shuttle, but the end of a certain strand of American idealism that the space program represents…here was a government program that lauded science and knowledge, not just fixing some problem that we had invented here on earth. This was an American endeavor that both uber liberals and staunch conservatives could both be proud of–and that is really saying something.
When we left that huge shuttle and started the long trek back to the car, I wanted to tell Christopher that this was just a bump in the road, and that our quest for knowledge outside of our own spheres was not over, but at that moment it seemed like a hard sell. Seeing the Endeavor grounded both literally and figuratively left me in knots: I was proud to be an American seeing what had been accomplished manifest in such a spectacular machine; at the same time, I felt sad that Christopher had to watch a symbol of American idealism relegated to a museum.
It was cool in Houston; an unusual night. It was the end of something.