This Most Awesome Space Cathedral November 19, 2010Posted by craftlass in beliefs, NASA, NASAtweetup, space, the cool factor, travel, tribute.
I am a huge fan of huge buildings. Having spent most of my life living near or in New York City I suppose it was inevitable that I would have strong feelings on these monuments to human achievement. Their peaks have filled my view from various angles and distances and every time, without fail, I have been awestruck for at least one moment.
The Woolworth Building reminds me of the power of nickels-and-dimes long after the stores themselves no longer had items priced that low and then disappeared from the American landscape. It’s a beautiful monument to the American dream and still takes my breath away every time I turn the corner to look up at it or spy it amongst the newer, cleaner (but far less interesting) structures that now surround it in the skyline. The Chrysler Building, though the tallest in the world for only a brief moment, is still possibly the most beautiful piece of architecture ever dreamed up, and the criticism that it was, “a stunt design, evolved to make the man in the street look up,” is actually one of the greatest compliments a building could receive as it does exactly that to the new visitor and jaded New Yorker alike. The Empire State Building has so many features one could spend a lifetime studying it and still look upon it and be surprised by one never noticed before. The World Trade Center towers, gone for far too long already, still loom over the skyline in my mind when I gaze across the Hudson. The word “awesome” is so overused today but one only needs to look to these buildings to remember what it actually means.
I thought my own history with buildings of this order would prepare me for my first glimpse of NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). As I stood on the pier of Space View Park, miles away, waiting to watch the landing of STS-129, I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. Even from that distance it was impressive, and standing alone, without a skyline to give it context, even more so. As we later drove towards it on the tour bus I filled my companions’ ears with trivia I had learned about it, like the fact the lines on the flag painted on it’s side were large enough for the bus we were on to drive down one. As it grew larger and larger in my view, though, I lost my thoughts and simply stared until I got the wherewithal to grab my camera to take the first of hundreds of pictures I would take obsessively on my visits to Kennedy Space Center. I was awestruck in a whole new way. A new dream formed, one I thought would always go unfulfilled, a dream of standing inside that building and getting to take in it’s immensity and history.
I had the incredible fortune of getting a lot closer for the launch of STS-131. The area I was in, known as the Turn Basin for the lake next to the site where the external tanks and solid rocket boosters come in on their ships, was right next to the VAB with only the Launch Control Center standing between us. The vast VAB loomed over us through the night as we waited for the launch and I stared at it in all it’s lit-up glory for much of that time, unable to turn away except for glimpses of Discovery on her pad. I walked around and took in as many angles as I could, sometimes photographing, sometimes just staring with my mouth open in quiet appreciation.
Almost a year later I received an invitation to an event that would have taken me inside. I cried for days at the realization I simply could not attend, and I’m usually not the sort to cry over such things. It felt like I was killing my own dream by giving in to circumstances beyond my control and hurt me on a level I didn’t know possible. All over a building!
At that point I had received confirmation that I was invited to the 3rd NASA launch tweetup but, having followed avidly the tweeps at the first two, I knew the VAB was well out-of-reach even with all the VIP treatment they had received. It wasn’t even a consideration in my excitement for the event.
On day two of the tweetup we loaded onto our busses, curious about what we would see on our special tour. My bus was dubbed “the cool bus” and it was indeed cool to me, as we not only had organizers Stephanie Schierholz and Beth Beck on board along with a knowledgeable and entertaining tour guide, but most of my closer friends in the group. We were already bouncing with excitement as we took over the back of the bus. Suddenly, our guide started walking the aisle, handing out little cards with clips that turned out to read, “NASA Special Guest,” that he said we would have to hand back. I hadn’t heard an announcement so this piqued my curiosity even more. When Stephanie called us to attention and told us we were going inside the VAB it took a few moments to hit my brain, I was certain I must have heard wrong until everyone started completely freaking out. The only thing I could equate it to was the old films of teen girls screaming for the Beatles.
As we got off the bus outside this venerable structure everyone scrambled to take pics or pose for them. I pulled out my camcorder to record this once-in-a-lifetime moment when we stepped through the doorway and tried to capture a giant pan of it all and my fellow tweetuppers reaction. Where a moment before we had been deafening in our glee we all went suddenly quiet with reverence.
There we were, standing in the building that was needed to get America to orbit and on to the moon. Where the majestic Saturn V rockets had stood in all their glory. Where the pieces of Columbia, one of the greatest tragedies of exploration, lie tucked away safely now so researchers can learn forever from our mistakes. Where the mostly nameless, faceless workaday heroes of the space program have toiled for decades to physically make possible the greatest adventures known to humans. Where, at that moment, the solid rocket boosters of the last planned shuttle mission were just beginning to be stacked, the familiar cones standing in a corner looking small and almost innocuous despite their impressive size.
Past, present, and future came crashing down on me and I turned off the camcorder to soak it all in.
The same group who had been so loud in shared joy just a few minutes earlier was completely changed. Most were silent, some were speaking in the hushed tones usually reserved for church or a library. Don’t get me wrong, the energy was still all there, but something in that building begged for quiet reverence. When I commented on the reaction to a friend she replied, “Yes, because it is a space cathedral.”
She had it exactly right.
I was a very lucky kid, my parents either took me on or enabled me to go on trips to Europe several times while growing up. Along the way I have been to some of the most beautiful and famous cathedrals there, from Westminster Abbey to the Vatican with many in-between. I decided by the age of 6 or 7 that I was definitely not a Christian (despite being raised Catholic) but these buildings have always spoken to me, not as houses of God but as some of the most inspiring examples of the cleverness and artistry of people. Sure, I know the history of some of them is filled with pretty horrific stories, but the end result can not be denied – they are gorgeous and awe-inspiring. The feature that usually binds them all together is the light pouring through the great windows, to some, evidence of holiness, to me, evidence of the wonders of our Sun.
The VAB is exactly like them in that respect. Each end of the center… hmmmmm… hallway isn’t the right word, drive seems wrong even though it’s somewhat fitting… anyway, each end has these gloriously large windows with beams from the bright Florida sun reaching towards us. One had an American flag hanging down the center that almost resembled stained glass from the glow, even though it was fabric. I had never felt quite so patriotic and proud as looking at that flag.
We are a nation of explorers. Our land was discovered repeatedly by brave souls who dared to take a chance on it’s wilderness. Our founding settlers risked everything to create their little pockets of civilization without any way of knowing what a grand one would result someday. Most of us have ancestors, even as close as our parents, who plunged into America looking for something not available where they were from, but with no real notion of what would be here when they arrived, just that it was supposed to be some vague “better”. These were blind leaps of faith at the extreme and they were utterly human.
The end result was this building and what it means to exploration in a whole other direction. Up and out, onwards and forwards. Even in this time of great uncertainty as to the future of space exploration (let’s face it, it changes with every election cycle now and those are way shorter than it takes to get a project literally off the ground) in our country, it is a powerful thing to recognize the capability we have and the intense human need to keep going and going and going…
Wherever we go, whatever we do, even if the vehicle never enters this building, we could not possibly get there without it. I wish I could take every single person in the world and stand them there, right in the middle, to gaze at the machinery, the signatures on the walls from people who toiled so hard within it’s walls, and just the grandeur of it all. I dare someone to stand there and not realize how important it all is, from the lowliest assistant to the men and women who ride those rockets, from the small rockets carrying satellites that teach us about our home planet and environs to the giants that allowed man to walk on a completely different surface and even live in space.
I have beheld the power of humanity and it is AWESOME.