One Step Closer

Last week, for the first time, I wrote about the space shuttle in the past tense.

It was a weird, and somewhat sad, experience.

I’ve known for, what, almost six years now that the end of the shuttle was coming. When Bush II announced the Vision for Space Exploration, the clock began ticking toward the retirement of the shuttle. But, back then, it was the distant future. I knew it was coming, but it wasn’t real.

Now, however, there are increasingly more and more little reminders that this is actually going to happen, imminently. During the last shuttle last, the commentator noted that this was the penultimate flight of Atlantis. As I wrote recently, when I saw her in orbit after undocking from the station, it occurred to me that, depending on whether and ground track of her next flight, that might be the last time I get to see Atlantis. (Particularly sad after our close relationship this year.)

Last week was another milestone. Part of my job is to write Student Topic features — essentially encyclopedia-entry type articles about NASA topics for elementary and middle school kids. It’s a lot of fun, and one of my favorite things I get to do. (OK, full disclosure: I’m a bit biased, since it was my idea.) Most of what we write is more timely, along the lines of newspaper or magazine articles.

Since the Topics, on the other hand, are intended to be read years down the road, we’ve had to start writing them with that in mind. Last week, for example, I wrote one about orbit. Not that long ago, I would have explained in the article how the space shuttle orbits Earth. Now, on the other hand, I use the International Space Station instead. Since the station’s up there right now, it’s timely today, but will also be timely two years from now.

On the next topic I started working on, however, I ran into a problem. I was writing about orbital debris, working from an old feature my team had written years ago. And it turns out, to write about orbital debris, you pretty much have to write about the space shuttle. There’s a fair bit of large orbital debris that can be counted and tracked using ground- and space-based observational assets. But there’s a good bit of it that’s too small to see. And, basically, the way we have any idea how much of that stuff is out there is by counting how many pieces of it hit the shuttle while it was in orbit, and then figuring out how much volume of space the shuttle flew through during it’s mission. From there, you extrapolate the debris-per-volume ratio out to encompass orbital space, and you have a working estimate. Cool, huh?

But, incorporating this necessary information into the feature while still writing it in a way that wouldn’t be dated in a few years meant that I had to do something I hadn’t done before — write about the shuttle in past tense. Changing the feature from “When the shuttle returns from a mission, engineers count …” to “When the shuttle returned from a mission, engineers counted …:

And in that moment, the immenent end of the program became a little more real.

I had another interesting realization not that long ago while I was in Florida. At the KSC Visitors Center, they had a room with plaques for every shuttle mission. And looking at it, it occurred to me that, chronologically at least, I have now worked at NASA for a quarter of the shuttle program. The first flight was 28 years ago, in 1981, when I was five years old. I started working out here seven years ago, in 2002. It was weird to realize how much of the program I’d been here for, and also made its impending end a little more bittersweet.

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