I’ll miss the space program — by that much

It’s over. No, I’m not talking about the crash and burn of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, or the latest surprisingly predictable celebrity marriage meltdown.

It’s over. No, I’m not talking about the crash and burn of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, or the latest surprisingly predictable celebrity marriage meltdown. Last week, the last space shuttle Atlantis creaked and groaned to a grinding halt on the tarmac at Cape Canaveral, Fla., and with it so did 30 years of space trucking.

I’m not really sure just what their 135 trips (NASA had planned nearly four times that) of very expensive orbiting around our home orb accomplished in three decades.

But I do know they put a giant telescope up there, which takes very pretty pictures of the universe when it’s working, and they dropped off a bunch of other satellites presumably so my GPS unit will work in my car and, of course, they trucked up a bunch of parts, pieces and paraphernalia to help build the space station, which nobody knows exactly what it’s supposed to do.

You may be able to tell I wasn’t a huge fan of the “orbiter” space taxi program — I always thought that NASA should have reached farther — “To the moon, and beyond!” to paraphrase Buzz Lightyear.

They were on a roll back in the 1970s, landing on the moon, quadding around and playing golf on its dusty and rocky lunar landscape, bounding around in gravity that made you weigh less, which these days is a good thing, piquing the imaginations of all of us watching from afar, not able to bound around one bit here on Earth without the aid of bungees.

I always agreed with people like astronomer and media personality the late Dr. Carl Sagan, who said: “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known” and he didn’t think an orbiter program was the way to find it.

Of course, he also famously said: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe,” which makes my head hurt.

Point is, he was an outspoken opponent to the space shuttle program, favouring instead the continued exploration of deep space. He argued for meeting up with the rest of the universe, instead of putting gazillions of dollars into a semi-safe space delivery van travelling barely out of the neighbourhood.

Still I never missed following the fascinating, often magical space program — shuttle and otherwise — as closely as any earthling could. As long as I can remember, I’ve always been captivated by things that launch and things that fly.

Remember those one-foot-high red plastic rockets you could get at Kresge’s or Woolworths? You would pump it full of water and when it was pressurized to the point that you could hear the plastic rocket starting to crack, you would release it and with a spectacular whoosh, the water would gush out of the bottom, propelling the plastic projectile several feet into the air, and drench the happy launchee in H2O rocket fuel.

I had to have one. Every summer. Once I even got one to soar as high as our big spruce tree in the back yard. I believe it’s still stuck somewhere in the top of that tree.

And one time, my friend Jim and I decided it would be neat to fly one of those remote control airplanes. Since learning to build and fly a fancy wireless radio remote control kit was out of the question, we opted for a cheap little build-it-yourself flying machine that was controlled by two long wires.

So one Saturday, we sat down at the kitchen table and opened the little box, which contained a surprising number of small, extremely fragile balsa wood pieces, tiny plastic bits and a big tube of highly toxic model glue.

I’ll admit up front, I never was much of a model builder. It took me one entire summer and most of the fall to build my 18-inch plastic scale model of the Seattle Space Needle, and when it was finished it looked more like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Until my dog Bim knocked it over, which actually improved the overall look of the thing significantly.

But Jim was very good at building things, so I mostly supervised, being in charge of attempting to read the incomprehensible instructions and handing him stuff. After several hours of intense construction and breathing model glue fumes, we were already flying, if you get my drift, and the little airplane was ready to join us.

We went to a nearby playground and after half an hour or so of trying to start the little gas engine without cutting off a fingertip with the propeller, the little balsa plane finally buzzed to life. I held the little flying machine very carefully in front of me, making sure the propeller was facing away (which I thought was one of the better tips mentioned in the instructions) while Jim ran the control wires about five metres away and held onto the handle.

Yelling over the din of the surprisingly loud and powerful tiny engine, we counted down, and in the great traditional spirit of the Wright Brothers, I ceremoniously launched the little airplane skyward. It immediately plummeted straight into the ground at my feet.

Luckily, it was relatively undamaged for such a fragile flying machine and after another half hour of repairs, it was Take Two. This time, away it went, buzzing like an angry bee, Jim standing in the middle, the airplane zipping around and around at the end of the wires.

We soon understood why they invented wireless remote control. After about 10 times spinning around in circles, Jim got so dizzy he pretty much landed the plane by falling over.

When it was my turn, the same thing happened, except I crashed the thing instead of landing it, and our flying days were over.

Still it was a great day and we were so giddy with our success, we bought each other a beer at the nearest local establishment. Did I mention we were both over 40 years old at the time?

Such is the magic of flight, whether it be on the playground or outer space, no matter how old you are.

So I’ll really miss the shuttle program, and I’ve mentioned before to anyone who would listen that one of my goals in life was to witness first hand a shuttle launch.

Now, unfortunately, as Maxwell Smart would say, “Missed it by that much. …”

Harley Hay is a local freelance writer, award-winning author, filmmaker and musician. His column appears on Saturdays in the Advocate. His books can be found at Chapters, Coles and Sunworks in Red Deer.