NOTE: I am interrupting a series of blogs that I’ve been writing about Einstein, in order to write a few on NASA, on the occasion of the retirement of the Space Shuttle Program.
Ten days apart NASA treated us to a pair of spectacular aerial shows, first over the monuments of Washington, DC, and then over the skyscrapers of New York City.
On April 17 the shuttle Discovery was carried piggy-pack style on a shuttle carrier, a modified Boeing 747, from Cape Canaveral to Washington, DC. When it arrived over the Nation’s Capitol it circled over the Mall and monuments repeatedly, allowing thousands of Washingtonians to watch in awe, mixed with sadness. On television broadcasts around the world, hundreds of millions of others also watched with similar feelings of ambivalence. A good friend and former physics student, Bonnie Norris, now a NASA official, wrote, “I was lucky enough to watch the flyover with my NASA colleagues. There was lots of clapping and shouting as the shuttle approached, but as it departed from view the silence was deafening…”
After flying onto nearby Dulles Airport, the two vehicles were decoupled, with the Discovery transported by land for final retirement at the Air and Space Museum’s Udvar Hazy Center. For a week, however, it sat nose-to-nose with its sister shuttle Enterprise, retired at the museum since 1985. This was an occasion for dual-portraits by professional photographers and lay visitors.
Then on April 27 it was the Enterprise’s turn to be flown by the Boeing 747, this time to New York City. NASA photographs of the two giant birds flying in tandem over the city’s landmarks — the Statue of Liberty, Hudson River, George Washington Bridge and the soaring skyscrapers — was again awe inspiring, as well as resonating with sadness.
My grandparents, visiting New York in the mid-1920s, had purchased a set of postcards that is now in my possession. Connected in accordion-like fashion, “The City of Skyscrapers,” is a collection of a dozen cards depicting scenes from the city — the Flat Iron Building, Woolworth Building, Brooklyn Bridge… but conspicuous in the absence of the Empire State Building, not to be built until 1929-1931. Among the vintage postcards is a biplane flying over the Statue of Liberty.
Then on another postcard labeled, “Future New York,” one can see elevated train tracks resting atop buildings, and prominent in the air, a tri-plane and a dirigible. It is the tri-plane that reminded me of how difficult it is to predict the direction that technology will take. Jet planes, harnessing of nuclear energy, liquid fuel rockets, satellites… and manned-visits to the moon were no more than 4-5 decades in the future when the postcard was printed. So was computing technology, symbiotic and irreversible in its connection to the aerospace industry. Computers allowed landing on the moon and navigation of unmanned space vehicles, and aerospace technology led to the miniaturization of computers, and ultimately desktop computing.
My gratitude to Veronique Brown for the use of the lead photo, and to Bonnie Norris for her gracious words. NEXT: NASA PART II. “MANNED SPACE AND TRAGIC FAILURES”