Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Disco at Pad 39A

Today, in the wee hours of the morning, Space Shuttle Discovery made it's final [planned] trip to launch pad 39A. It may seem meaningless, but to me, the act is a very symbolic representation of my life.


It may seem hard to believe that the Space Shuttle program has been my constant; it first inspired me to be an astronaut, and continues to inspire me in my work each day. Back in the sixth grade I gave speeches to space nerds like me (read: Boeing and Mesa Public Schools employees) about the "deafening roar" and "splitting the firmament" during a Space Shuttle launch, even though I had never experienced one. I knew in my heart exactly what it felt like...I had imagined it so many times, the ignition, the brilliant fire, the sound delay.

I also knew all about the preparations and the long, slow crawl to the launch pad. The next few years I experienced my own crawl, I kept my "nose to the grindstone" as mom and dad used to say, soaking up my public education and using it to my advantage. I made careful preparations (learning Russian, working at Boeing, and excelling in school) to be sure I would make it to the next step: college. The crawl had stopped, I had arrived at the launchpad.

But now I had to make the most vital preparations ever. I had to learn about subjects completely foreign to me: Thermodynamics, Vibration Analysis, High Speed Aerodynamics. And just like the engineers and technicians scurrying around the gantry next to Discovery right now, I was scurrying around too. I was trying to take it all in, experience the immensity of it, and prepare for the impending launch.

And somehow, amongst the busy preparations, I was able to set a date for the launch. There I was staring at pad 39A and her graceful bird, just like the launch I finally experienced in May 2008. I remember it being just as I had imagined, the air was electrified with patriotism and excitement. I remember being swallowed in the moment, unable to focus on anything else, almost in tears. Little did those astronauts, engineers, technicians, scientists, family and friends know how much their work impacted a little girl; how much it had shaped her entire life.

In December 2009 I was staring at a different launchpad. It was the culmination of all my years of effort. It was scary and exciting and perfect all at the same time. I was given the Go For Launch to be an Army Flight Test Engineer.

And as Discovery makes her final crawl to the pad and the technicians begin her final preparations, I am still preparing. In the short-term I am preparing for my very first helicopter ride, collecting data, and helping to ensure our troops are safe. The long term preparations are harder to pin down, but I have to be confident that I am designing myself to be adaptable for whatever mission lies ahead; Discovery sure was.

It's hard to imagine my life will be the same without a shuttle launch to look forward to; without a beautiful, impossible meet-up of the shuttle and ISS to see in the night sky (I've seen it 3 times!); without getting to meet the new crews, or hear a first-timer's story of what it was like. I just hope whatever replaces the space shuttle inspires the next generation, just as it inspired me.