Monday, February 8, 2010

Possibly the shuttle's last night launch - but the start of NASA's dark times

Purchase a print | Circumstances didn't permit me to get a time-lapse shot of the launch from the Indian River, so I settled for the grassy dunes of the beach in Cape Canaveral.

A crescent moon rose while I waited for the launch.

After failing horribly at shooting my first nighttime shuttle launch, I finally got a usable photo of Endeavour from a location closer to Kennedy Space Center. For all launches since that March 2008 lesson in how to shoot a time lapse, I've been relegated to setting up my equipment from outside work in Melbourne.

Fortunately, I had Super Bowl Sunday off, so I headed to the beach in Cape Canaveral around 3:30 a.m. Monday without a care of what was happening at the newspaper. But I knew that if the shuttle were scrubbed again Monday morning, as it was because of weather Sunday, I probably wouldn't get this last chance. The next try would have been on Valentine's Day, when I'm scheduled to work.

But the sky cleared nicely, and Endeavour lifted off as planned at 4:14 a.m., lighting up the beach and overpowering a reddish crescent moon as the brightest point in the sky.

The launch likely is the final one of a space shuttle under the veil of darkness. Only four missions remain until the predicted September retirement of the fleet, and they're all scheduled during the day. If those dates change for any reason, however, we might have another night launch, which really isn't such a long shot. NASA's plans change as quickly as the weather in Florida.

Ironically, Endeavour was the first shuttle I saw lift off at night, when I failed miserably at getting the shot from Titusville. It's just fitting that it could be the last.

But speaking of miserable failures, President Barack Obama's budget for NASA, though larger than expected, is a dagger into the heart of America's space agency. The extra money, about $6 billion, is for NASA to entice corporations to build rockets capable of launching astronauts into orbit - an endeavor without a track record, worrying safety experts. It effectively cancels Project Constellation, devised during President George W. Bush's tenure. With it, dreams of landing on the moon again won't be realized anytime soon. Obama's decision to take away from NASA what it has done since it was founded - send humans into space, either to circle Earth or touch another heavenly body - has put a damper on the mood at Kennedy Space Center and throughout Central Florida in the past two weeks.

With the shuttle's end, 7,000 people are expected to lose their jobs at KSC. Several thousand more probably will be laid off in the community because of NASA's cuts. And Obama's budget means that the NASA figure likely will rise. So as the economy may improve nationwide, the recession in Brevard County - which I like to call the Silicon Valley of the East Coast on account of its tech-heavy employers - will be prolonged.

It's a real shame and a turnabout that hurts this area deeply. Even our Democratic members of Congress have spoken against the misguided budget. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former astronaut, seems to be simply going along for the ride on Obama's omnibus.

Monday's launch attracted people from throughout the world, as one always does. After Endeavour's successful liftoff, the Waffle House, Dunkin' Donuts, McDonald's, IHOP and Denny's in Cocoa Beach were packed with spectators filling their stomachs with a hot breakfast (it was a chilly evening). And after the scrubbed attempt Sunday, the roads in Brevard were jammed. But without the shuttle, or any specific spaceflight program to replace it, such sights are numbered in the cities and towns of the Space Coast, a community built on an other-worlds curiosity, as its name suggests.

Pathetic as it sounds, the Space Coast will have to enjoy this "strong" economy while it lasts.

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