Space Shuttle Parking Lot

It is by now a somewhat common event, one that for most Americans is signaled by nothing more than a brief clip on the news. But a shuttle launch is still one of mankind’s most complex and massive undertakings, a carefully-primed $1.3 billion event that turns years of planning and construction into a spectacle that lasts only a few minutes. But to some, it’s the spectacle of a lifetime. People come from across the country and the world to see it. They travel from Michigan or Alaska or England or Italy and line up along a worn river bank in Florida, waiting for hours, maybe days, to see a group of people embark on another journey, this one powered by rockets that do zero to 17,000 mph in 8.5 minutes. To the fans, the astronauts strapped into the Space Transportation System, as their ride is called, aren’t just “rocket jockeys.” They’re like rock stars. Last month, when the space shuttle left the earth at night for the last time, Motherboard was at Cape Canaveral and nearby Titusville to capture the preparations at NASA and the excitement of the fans. The long wait, cold weather, and even a 24-hour delay be damned. To the masses who had assembled around campfires, on lawn chairs, behind cameras, the event was unmissable not just for the unparalleled sight and sound of a shuttle interrupting the placid dark of a Florida night. This, the fifth-to-the-last shuttle launch, was another bittersweet milestone in the potential close of America’s manned space era, a epic story that began with the heady experiments of the Space Race and extended well into the future, towards the dream of moon bases and Martian colonies. If those dreams have been put on the back burner by the Obama administration’s new NASA focus — a shift that threatens the economy of the whole area — dreams of space are alive and well across the Space Coast. And there’s simply no better place to see the awe, the excitement, and occasional frustration surrounding America’s space project in a moment of twilight than the place where those dreams, for minutes at a time, become overwhelming, jaw-dropping, mind-elevating reality.

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