Godspeed, Atlantis

The flagpoles in the picture above are outside of the Payload Operations Control Center at Marshall Space Flight Center. There’s a row of several flagpoles — flying the U.S. flag, the NASA flag, the space station flag, flags for NASA’s international partner agencies. And then, there’s the flagpole at the end.

After I’d been working here for half a year, the flagpole on the end sat empty for two and a half years. Each of the orbiters has a flag, and the flagpole is used only to fly those flags when an orbiter is in space. Right now, the Atlantis flag is flying on the flagpole on the end.

Just days from now, that flag will be taken down. And will never fly again.

I’ve been debating what to say in this blog post. I watched the launch Friday, and wanted to write about it. But doing so requires addressing the elephant in the room. This is the final flight of the space shuttle Atlantis. Or, it’s not. There’s still talk of another flight of Atlantis next June, but the decision won’t be made until next month, after the current flight is over. Too late to pay respects to Atlantis timely to her last mission, if that’s what STS-132 is.

And doing it now is just being honest. When I watched Atlantis launch on Friday, it was very much on my mind that it could be for the last time.

Launch was an interesting experience. I went down and watched the last two in person, and had thought I might finish out the program that way. But my brother’s graduation precluded a Florida trip this past weekend, so I watched from work. And I was glad that’s how it worked out.

Seeing a launch in person is an amazing experience, and I recommend everyone go down for one of the last two (or three). But the way I saw it Friday really wasn’t so much a better or worse thing as an entirely different thing. Watching it on a big screen meant that you get to see detail that you just don’t from the Causeway at Kennedy. But the best part was watching it in a roomful of Marshall team members. For many of these people, this is their life’s work. It’s not simply powerful, it’s personal. And it’s an honor stand amongst them for that moment. I’ve said it before, but it’s a huge huge privilege to be even a tiny tiny part of this team. I’m blessed.

And it was a beautiful launch.

But the thing that made the biggest impression was just a tiny detail. They had small versions of the Atlantis flag decorating the tables. And those flags bear a weird association for me — my friend and coworker Heather received a flown Endeavour flag for a story she did about the student contest that named that orbiter. Since, obviously, Endeavour didn’t have a name when the naming contest started, it was the OV-105 naming project, referring to the Orbiter Vehicle designation. As a result, even though the flags have the names on them, when I see them, the number pops into my head instead. I see the flag at the top, and think not Atlantis, but OV-104.

I did a quick mental calculation — is that right? 104? Yeah, ’cause OV-103 is Discovery, and OV-102 is …

OV-102. That designation was used a lot seven years ago, after she was lost on re-entry over Texas. A good bit of the official investigation work referred to her by that officlal designation, instead of the better known name, Columbia.

OV-102 didn’t get to retire. Her career ended tragically and abruptly on February 1, 2003. And she wasn’t the first. OV-099 met an untimely end as well, on January 28, 1986.

Each of those flew for a last time. Not by choice, not in the way anyone would have wanted or dreamed. But utterly final nonetheless. And in the line of duty, doing what they were built for.

If STS-132 is in fact Atlantis’ last mission, she will be only the third orbiter to have a final flight. And unlike her sisters, it will be planned, it will be because she survived until the end.

“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”

Godspeed, Atlantis! Come home to us safely. As sad as it is to see your career come to an end, it is a far, far better rest that you go to than you have ever known.

The Roar of a Crowd on a Friday Night

OK, you know, initially this was going to be another “Hey, it’s weird I like country music now” post. But since I’ve liked country for most of the time I’ve written this blog, and have been listening to it regularly since before I started “Stories,” that’s really probably not that weird to a lot of my readers. Heck, how many of you are left out there that even knew me back then? I should figure out how to do a poll to figure that out.

It is still weird to me, though. Back in August I wrote a post about spiritual implications of Lady Antebellum’s “I Run To You”, and embedded the official video from YouTube. Cool to be able to come back now and do a post with video of them doing the song that I shot on my iPhone. At that point in time, I’d been to a country concert, with Sugarland (awesome) and Billy Currington (totally not my thing at the time, though I now really like “People Are Crazy”). Since then, I’ve seen Ralph Stanley and Sammy Kershaw and Trace Adkins and Sara Evans and Heidi Newfield and probably a few others I’m forgetting, and I’m going to the Opry next week.

Friday, I saw Lady Antebellum and Tim McGraw.

When my friend pitched the concert tour me, I think it was pitched as a Lady A concert; I’m not sure I even knew McGraw was also playing when I committed to go. And that was fine, I was going to see Lady Antebellum; I really didn’t have much interest in Tim McGraw.

I enjoyed their single “I Run To You” greatly; enough that when I saw Best Buy had the CD on sale for like $8 last year I figured it was worth picking up. Their second CD, I bought twice in the first week it was out. And there’s some good stuff on there. And, yeah, sure, “Need You Now” and “Love This Pain” were kinda very much where I was when the album came out. But, yeah, to summarize, I loves me some Lady Antebellum.

And they were awesome; I loved their performance, and it was a great opportunity getting to see them live.

Tim McGraw, on the other hand? To be honest, when I heard about the concert, the main thing I knew about Tim McGraw was the Taylor Swift song: “When you think Tim McGraw / Hope you think my favorite song.” I knew I must have heard some of his songs, but none of them had made much of an impression. To prepare for the concert, I put some of his music on my iPod, but never quite got around to taking a serious stab at listening to it. The radio station we were listening to was playing his music before the concert, and that was a pretty good chunk of all the prep I got.

For a bit, I figured he’d peaked before he started. Without even visibly coming on stage, he and the band did Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight.” Since that was a song that I actually know and like, I thought that might well be the high point.

But, I have to say, he did a good job. I was entertained. He was a very good performer, put on a good show, and I recognized more of his songs than I thought I would. I went back afterwards and rated several of them higher so they’d show up in my iTunes more often.

Even so, they highpoint still wasn’t one of his songs. He brought out a couple of songwriters, and said they were going to do one of his favorite songs. They start singing: “‘When you think Tim McGraw, I hope you think my favorite song …’ Oh, sorry, we thought you said one of your favorite subjects.”

I even bought my first concert tour t-shirt. I’ve bought shirts from an independent artist or two that I like at their shows, but I’ve never gotten an official tour shirt before. I really wish I’d gotten one when B.B. King was in town in January, so that regret nudged me into getting a Lady A shirt. I wore it to work Monday and everything.

On the way out, there were people handing out coupons to concert sponsor Outback Steakhouse, and an ad for McGraw, the fragrance by Tim McGraw, and McGraw Southern Blend (which really isn’t that different, but I guess Tim McGraw’s pretty southern already). I’ve been working on my own little song to go with it:

“When you smell Tim McGraw / Hope the smell is not too strong … “