A Houstonian’s Reluctant Ode to Atlantis, STS-135

*Soundtrack: Last Rendez-Vous (Ron’s Piece) ~ Jean Michel Jarre

I’m not a technophile, and harbor no Top Gearian tendencies to become emotional over a BMW or an Opel Cadet or a flight in a jet fighter; I’m much more likely to respond in that manner to nature programs featuring elephants, penguins, sea turtles, monarch butterflies, or sequoias, to be honest. I therefore found it surprising to get all teary-eyed while listening to the launch sequence for the final space shuttle mission on the radio today, as I was heading over for a staycation swim at the Natatorium.

For most of my childhood and early adulthood, I lived in the Gulf Coast city of Houston, Texas. I was educated in the Houston public school system, attended a magnet high school for the health professions, worked as a lifeguard at city swimming pools, and worked as a pediatric office assistant and nurse aide in the vast Texas Medical Center. My interests and obsessions were aligned with the latter, influencing my decision to stay in Houston to obtain my undergraduate degrees at Rice University.

Rice has long been known as an engineering university (in fact it was once called Rice Engineering Institute, or Rice Eats It, if you’re disgruntled with your academic performance there). Many of its students were undoubtedly inspired by the Space Program, and by dreams of working for NASA. Not I. I’d be lying if I claimed to be influenced in my career choices and trajectories by proximity to, and immersion in, the culture of NASA and the Space Program.


The Astrodome, Eight Wonder of the World. In 2011, it’s no wonder that it has been largely abandoned

As (almost) everyone knows, the control center for all manned/womynned space flight missions is located in Houston, at the Johnson Space Center. References to, and influences from, the Space Program abound in Houston, and permeate many aspects of everyday life. The city’s nickname is “Space City”, the National League baseball team are the Astros, the NBA basketball team are the Rockets, there’s an Astrodome and an Astroworld, and schools and streets are named for astronauts, NASA engineers, and space shuttles. In the HISD schools, we were repeatedly regaled with inspirational classroom lectures by visiting NASA astronauts and engineers.

Meh, I thought, repeatedly, and part of me still harbors that dismissal. It’s the part that suffers from motion sickness, mainly. There are a few reasons to be negative about NASA’s programs and decisions: physicist Richard Feynmann’s criticism of the O-ring design and “safety culture” that contributed to the Challenger disaster, and Edward Tufte’s analysis of the “PowerPoint culture”, indicative of problems that may have contributed to the 2003 Columbia disaster. The latter shuttle disintegrated over East Texas, and one person of my acquaintance was temporarily employed picking bits of the spaceship and its contents out of the underbrush, in a recovery mission for NASA. I’m likely in the minority here when I express my opinion that we can no longer afford the Shuttle Program, and that there are many more pressing concerns for human and environmental welfare here on Earth. But I still feel a disheartening sense of loss, with this last shuttle mission. Fare you well, fare you well.


Rendez-Vous Houston, April 1986. Photo by Patrick Burke, under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 Generic License

* I like the idea of having a soundtrack for each of my posts, but I don’t know how to implement this technologically. In any case, Jarre, whose Rendez-Vous Houston concert appears in the photo above, was friends with physicist and astronaut Ron McNair. Dr. McNair was also a saxophonist, and he had worked with Jarre on a saxophone solo that he was to play, record, and link via live feed during the shuttle flight. That flight was STS-51-L, aboard the Challenger, which of course ended in tragedy, on January 28, 1986. If you enjoy electronic music, Jarre’s Rendez-Vous album is well worth a listen.

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12 Responses to A Houstonian’s Reluctant Ode to Atlantis, STS-135

  1. “we can no longer afford the Shuttle Program, and that there are many more pressing concerns for human and environmental welfare here on Earth.”

    The more sensible part of my brain reluctantly agrees.

    Isn’t it a hell of a shame, though?

    • KristiV says:

      I agree, it *is* a shame. I keep thinking of my friends and fellow students who were inspired by NASA and by the shuttle missions, and how depressing it must be for them. I know several scientists who’ve had various research projects on shuttle missions: axis determination in developing limbs, bone mineralization, vestibular system effects, etc. I’m also plenty old enough to remember the excitement over STS-1.

      But yeah, we’ve got bigger fish to fry here.

    • Stephen says:

      Yes – it is a shame. Full marks for effort…

      Regarding costs:

      – Total cost of the shuttle program: $196 billion
      Annual US defence budget: $685 billion

      Dreams are less expensive than you think…

  2. alejandro says:

    ……and thought about joining NASA. I can not imagine a Kristi trying to cultivate vegetables in a space station.

  3. cromercrox says:

    Kristi – if you’re looking for a soundtrack, the short, elegiac instrumental Contact Lost, on Deep Purple’s album Bananas (2003), is a specific reference to the Columbia disaster. Apparently one of the astronauts was a fan of the band.

  4. Doesn’t the space program throw out all sorts of useful tech? I mean, more useful than astronaut ice-cream and Tang?

    • Billy Connolly has a hilarious piece about this, including a rant about non-stick frying pans. “If you’re in zero gravity, wouldn’t you want the egg to stick to the pan?” was the most memorable part…

    • KristiV says:

      Perhaps someone has done a cost-benefit analysis – it might be interesting to compare figures for federal agencies and programs such as the NIH, NSF, DARPA, and of course, the Department of Defense.

      There was a piece on Morning Edition, today I think, about the food scientists who developed meals for the astronauts. Apparently the most popular item was a shrimp cocktail, and they still take Tang into space.

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