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The Last Space Shuttle: End of an Era

Jun 19, 2011

When Kennedy announced his intention to send a man to the moon, it did more than just spur science to innovate quickly. It sparked the imagination of millions and continued to do so over generations. Conversely the final space shuttle launch this year took more than just budgets and science from NASA. Here’s a story about something else that burned out along with Discovery’s final blast-off.

shuttle The Last Space Shuttle: End of an Era

A long time ago, back in grade school, my best friend was a kid named Jake. In a word, Jake was a genius. By kindergarten he could solve any arithmetic problem in his head within milliseconds, and by the fifth grade he was stampeding through multivariable calculus faster than I could eat a pack of Dunk-a-Roos.

Like most kids his age, Jake had his obsessions. He loved space, and nothing got him more excited than the space shuttle, that fantastical contraption of steel and fuel and raw, awesome power. Where I saw some sort of brick with wings jury-rigged to a ginormous rocket, Jake saw beauty. The labyrinth of tangled hoses and heat shields and thundering engines were all pieces of some magical equation that only he could decipher.

Jake not only knew everything about the space shuttle, he understood it all. While the rest of the class toiled with concepts he had mastered by kindergarten, Jake was pouring through theoretical physics textbooks and figuring out his own equations for penetrating the deep reaches of space. On launch days, Jake would convince me to sneak out of class and find some unused classroom from which we could view the countdown. Jake would gaze at the TV in silence, scrutinizing every last detail of the launch pad, every little adjustment. Only until the network cut away to other programming would he let me drag him back to class.

I was the first of my friends to get a driver’s license. That very night, Jake snuck through my window and woke me up at 3am. There was a launch the next day, Jake said, and he needed to see it. The fact that it was an 800 mile drive to Cape Canaveral didn’t even register with him. There was a launch, he needed to see it, and that was that. So I clambered out of bed, brushed my teeth, and we drove 800 miles to Florida on a school night to see Jake’s favorite shuttle, Discovery, blast off into the heavens.

I remember his haunted expression when that colossal plume of fire and thrust and smoke propelled Discovery off the launch pad and up, up, up until it was just a golden speck. It was a look of pure and absolute wonderment—one that I’ll never forget.

I returned home the next day to a pair of infuriated parents, an active missing persons report, and a vow that I’d never drive again until I was eligible for social security. All I could say in my defense was that Jake needed to see a launch. And that was that.

Jake later enrolled in an astrophysics program at Princeton. By that point the space shuttles were growing older and frailer, and there was talk of retiring them soon. Jake would call me every few weeks or so with a new list of ways to fix and recondition the old birds. He even piled on more courses so he could finish his major early and get a job with NASA before it was too late.

But then something changed around sophomore year. The calls stopped, and the increasingly rare launches came and went without a word from my old friend. Once, near the end of my senior year, I tried calling him during a launch of his beloved Discovery, but he didn’t pick up.

At long last I ran into Jake one weekend back home, not long ago. I barely recognized him. His once disheveled hair was neatly trimmed and combed with a perfect part. He wore contacts now, and there was no trace of that piercing, slightly maniac demeanor I had once known so well.

Back at Princeton, Jake told me, his near godlike math abilities had attracted some attention, and before long he was inundated with job offers from nearly every industry. But one man in particular managed to convince my old friend that there were far more practical and lucrative ways to put his genius to work than fixing space shuttles and exploring space. The man’s name was Richard, and he was an executive vice president at an investment bank called Goldman Sachs.

Jake told me over beers at his Upper East Side apartment that he was heading a profitable division that bundled mortgages and other securities into investment bonds. He was going off about all the money he was making and the new financial instruments he was inventing and packaging and leveraging, credit default swaps and synthetic collateralized debt obligations—in typical Jake fashion he had lost me within seconds. He spoke with that same excitement with which he once gushed about guidance systems, heat shields, rocket engines, and above all, the wonder of exploring deep space.

But then he went quiet, and he put down his drink. The TV had suddenly cut away to something else. It was the final launch of Discovery.

The shuttle was all spruced up for the launch, but it seemed outmoded and tired, like an aging seabird. But the shuttle’s old engines roared to life, and from that magnificent plume of fire and ash, Jake’s favorite shuttle lumbered off to make one last reach for the stars.

For a brief moment, Jake’s face reminded me of when we snuck away to Florida in the dead of night all those years ago. A flash of awe and yearning, a flicker of that boyish wonder. But like Discovery, it was gone in the blink of an eye, into the heavens, where dwell only dreams and space shuttles.

Jake finished his drink and sat in silence. His cell started going off; it wasn’t until the fifth or sixth ring that he even noticed. He finally took it, and began rattling on about derivatives and securities and structured investments. Though he spoke with that familiar energy, there was a haunted, almost frightened look in his eyes. Maybe it was just nostalgia, or brief childhood wistfulness.

Or maybe it was regret.

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