Why NASA’s Orion matters

When I was eight years old, the universe opened up for me.

It was 1981, and NASA’s Voyager spacecraft had beamed back photos of Saturn. It was the most beautiful thing that I’d ever seen. I can remember standing outside at school one day and looking up at the clouds that were slowly passing over the school. A friend ran up to me to call me to play.

“What are you looking at?” she asked, briefly looking in the direction I was.

“There are planets out there,” I said. “Isn’t that cool?”

Image of Saturn taken by Voyager on Nov. 3, 1980. (NASA/JPL)

Image of Saturn taken by Voyager on Nov. 3, 1980. (NASA/JPL)

She looked up and shrugged. “Sure.” Then she ran off, leaving me there to gaze up at the sky. I don’t remember how long I stood there, but I can still remember the feeling. My world had suddenly become so much larger. And I wanted to know all about it.

A few years later, the space shuttle launched. To me, science fiction was now a reality. We weren’t far from seeing those planets for ourselves.

STS-1, the first launch of the space shuttle, on April 12, 1981. (Credit: NASA)

STS-1, the first launch of the space shuttle, on April 12, 1981. (Credit: NASA)

I’d never been good at math, so I knew a career as an astrophysicist was out of the question (or at least as a good one). But I could write and when I was 15 I decided that I wanted to be a journalist. I’d watch shuttle launches and be so envious of the reporters who were there. I wanted to be there.

Fast forward to December 2014.

Almost two years ago I joined Global News as the weather, science and environment reporter. There couldn’t have been a job better suited to me.

One of the great things I do is write about space. And on December 1, I was fortunate enough to find myself in Florida, covering the launch of NASA’s new Orion spacecraft, destined for Mars.

I’d never been fortunate enough to see a shuttle launch. I tried, twice, for STS-133 (Discovery) and STS-134 (Endeavour). STS-133 was scrubbed and then timing wasn’t right for STS-134 (thanks Will and Kate for ruining my chances). It is something that I will always regret, never having seen a launch. I wanted to hear and feel the rockets roaring to life. I wanted to watch as a shuttle soared up, up, up…to know that there were people strapped into their seats aboard that rocket, who were risking their lives to further the human race’s voyage to the stars.

Me, with the shuttle Endeavour, in the background in April 2011.

Me, with the shuttle Endeavour, in the background in April 2011.

But it never happened.

So there I was on Dec. 4 waiting for Orion — NASA’s first crewed vehicle since the shuttle and the first crew vehicle since Apollo designed to leave low-Earth orbit — to launch.

(As an aside, I must admit that it took me a couple of days to get the “Holy crap, I’m at NASA’s News Center!” thought out of my head.)

The News Center at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The NASA News Center at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The launch was scrubbed. Of course.

I thought, “Great. Here we go again. I am a menace to NASA’s launch program.”

Bleary-eyed after almost 36 hours of no sleep, I stumbled back to my hotel after writing a couple of stories. Before drifting off for a what could only be called a nap rather than a full-night’s sleep, I thought that this was going to another failure.

But it wasn’t.

Instead, I stood on the causeway the next morning, with new friends as NASA called the go/no-go for launch. My skin rose with goosebumps. It wasn’t the crisp air. It wasn’t the wind, or the fact that the sun was hidden behind a layer of clouds. It was pure anticipation.

And then the countdown began. …5, 4, 3, 2, 1… The flash of flames. The rumble, the cheering.

My god. It was amazing.

As United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy rocket, with Orion on top, climbed into the sky, I realized that I was shaking uncontrollably. This physiological reaction surprised me. My eyes welled up with tears. After the rocket disappeared behind the clouds, I ran over to a friend and we hugged and cheered.

(Yes, that would be my camera clicking away. I didn’t want to miss a thing. Also, yes, that would also be me hooting and hollering.)

For those who don’t love space or rockets, this may all seem a bit melodramatic. For those who do, you know of what I speak.

There are a multitude of reasons for this excitement, this reaction. But it can all be brought down to one simple word.

Hope.

Long ago we dreamed about reaching out into space. Not just with robotics, but with people. Science fiction books painted a future with large, orbiting space stations, colonies on the moon, settlements on Mars. And somehow the urge to reach out, to explore, to want to overcome challenges went from a raging fire, to a dim spark.

Of course there are certain realities, obstacles that have slowed our progress, such as the effects of solar and cosmic radiation on humans. And with that in mind, it seems understandable that it would slow our progress.

But it’s not just that. It’s that the love of space and exploration has died within the human spirit. How many people, in their busy day-to-day lives ever think about space exploration? How many people dream about other worlds anymore?

So for me, the much-ballyhooed launch of Orion represented a chance to reignite that desire, that urge that exists in all of us. Somehow we have forgotten that we are explorers. That we have settled all corners of this planet because of that.

Some people say that we’ll never settle on Mars. And maybe that’s true. But what’s to stop us from trying?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>