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Last liftoff for an historic institution?
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It takes a gargantuan effort to launch even a single shuttle.  Friday’s bitter-sweet final launch would have been no exception.  Behind the scene, thousands of unseen, unsung heroes all collaborate in what amounts to a minor miracle every time a mission is successfully brought to conclusion.

Reading statistics last night regarding what it takes to lift the 4.5 million ton shuttle machine to its orbit (between 115 and 400 miles high), I was deeply impressed.  In his online article, “How Space Shuttles Work” Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D. lists “the following components: two solid rocket boosters (SRB), three main engines of the orbiter, the external fuel tank (ET), orbital maneuvering system (OMS) on the orbiter.”

“The SRBs are solid rockets that provide most of the main force or thrust (71 percent) needed to lift the space shuttle off the launch pad.  In addition, the SRBs support the entire weight of the space shuttle orbiter and fuel tank on the launch pad.  Each SRB has the following parts:  solid rocket motor - case, propellant, igniter, nozzle; solid propellant;  fuel - atomized aluminum (16 percent); oxidizers - ammonium perchlorate (70 percent); catalyst - iron oxide powder (0.2 percent); binder - polybutadiene; acrylicacid acrylonite (12 percent); curing agent - epoxy resin (2 percent); jointed structure; synthetic rubber o-rings between joints; flight instruments; recovery systems; parachutes (drogue, main); floatation devices; signaling devices; explosive charges for separating from the external tank; thrust control systems; self-destruct mechanism.”

“Wow,” I thought.  “It’s almost as complicated as launching a new royal wedding.”

And so, from beside a hospital bed Friday, I glanced up and saw for myself how, in just a moment’s news, our attention was swinging from Cape Canaveral to London, and back again.  But I couldn’t help travelling back in time, to that fateful day when another famous royal couple wed before the enchanted eyes of the entire world.  How radiant were they, Charles and Lady Diana, in the beginning!

And yet even their marriage carried within it mechanisms of self-destruction which would become all too painfully visible within such a short time.   Charles and Di were united in matrimony, in fact, just 109 days after the first shuttle, Columbia, was launched.  As we watched Elton John make his entry into Westminster Abbey Friday, I could almost hear him singing, once again, “Candle in the Wind.”

For decades the British have debated whether maintaining the royalty is worth all the trouble.  Yet their obsession with the royal family continues, undaunted by all the scandals, the gossip, the empty pageantry, and the pain.  After all, William is the son of beloved Princess Diana, and in some sense, in this beautiful week of Easter, has resurrected her memory.  We all hope and pray that this marriage will succeed.

And succeed, it will, if pulling off this massive project, which required the organizing power of the British Army, is any indication.  Everything happened with British precision, even down to that well-practiced kiss. 

Unfortunately, we Americans didn’t fare so well.  As Donna Leinwand Leger writes for USA Today: “NASA abruptly canceled the launch of space shuttle Endeavour on Friday, ruining what was to be a historic day brimming with the emotion of gravely wounded Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords as she saw her husband command the shuttle program’s next-to-last flight into space.  A faulty thermostat on an auxiliary power unit delayed the launch for at least 72 hours. In the most optimistic scenario, launch director Mike Leinbach said the earliest the shuttle could launch would be 2:33 p.m. Monday.” 

What a dismal outcome, when we hoped that the combined power of 200 tornadoes could have been redeemed in the launching of an event to rival the royal wedding.  It seems as if the British will keep on launching new royal families, long after the Space Shuttle program has been mothballed.  I wonder if they haven’t got something to teach us, after all. 

Meanwhile, I listen to my favorite Elton John composition: You know the one about the candle.