A couple of random thoughts on expectations and the Space Shuttle Endeavour

L A tripS1-00437For me, at least, the Space Shuttle Endeavour didn’t meet expectations. That is not to say that I am disappointed, I’m not. I’m very glad to have seen it. The hype over the Space Shuttle has been so great that it would be very hard to have the reality match it and I knew that going in. It sort of reminds me of seeing Lever House for the first time. Lever House was designed by Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois of Skidmore, Owings, and Merril – if you are interested – and it is a milestone in architecture. Lever House is a pioneering glass box, a pure glass form in the International Style, sitting on top of an iconic pedestal, in New York, the center of the new,  post-World War II world order. It was so new, so iconic, in fact, that it was copied, verbatim,  in both Paris and Berlin. I had been reading about Lever House for twenty years before I first saw it, but by then there were glass boxes everywhere; even  San Francisco had one, the Crown Zellerbach Building, again by SOM. Lever House was great but it was also pretty short at 23 stories, it wasn’t the earth-moving experience I expected. The Space Shuttle is also great, but it essentially looks like a fat, not very streamlined, airplane – sort of a truck-plane – not a spaceship.

It is rare that a hyped place meets the raised expectations, for me, at least. I can only think of two super-hyped buildings artifacts that exceeded the hype; the David and the Taj Mahal. I was stunned by them both; they exceeded all of my absurdly high expectations. In general, however, my favorite places and things were surprises. The Grand Canyon, especially from the North Rim, is great, and watching it during a storm, at sunset, was even greater, but walking into the confluence of Hurricane Wash and Coyote Canyon, with no real idea of what it was going to be like, was transcendental, even in the middle of the day. I think we are fixated on the best, and often the best is not that much better than the second best even though hyped to be much better than anything, anywhere (and the second best  – best being a subjective concept – usually has better parking and smaller crowds).

Meanwhile, back at the Shuttle, my first impression, on seeing the Shuttle hanging in mid-air, just out of reach of the crowd, is how crude it seemed. It is more well-used truck than spaceship. A lot of that is because the ceramic tiles are fastened to all the areas that get very hot, the tiles take a beating on re-entry, and seem to be replaced randomly, but the non-tile areas also look sort of cobbled together. It seems like an amateur job and, in the sense that this is the first time the builders built anything like this, it is. This is Shuttle 1.0 and there wasn’t a Shuttle 2.0, or 3.0, or anything but the first five shuttles of which, two blew up.  Rocket 1-00451

Shuttle tiles-00441

But, as amateur as the Shuttle is on the outside, the Shuttles engines? motors? rockets? are beautiful, handmade, huge, pieces of machinery. They are not amateur and are something like Space Motor 11.5. The design is as old as the German V-2, fuel and oxidant are pumped into a combustion chamber, exploded  – I guess, officially, oxidized –  and, superheated, pushed out of a nozzle at the other end.Shuttle engine-00447-2 To quote NASA, As the Shuttle accelerates, the main engines burn a half-million gallons of liquid propellant. Figuring for the six-minute burn time, divided by the three main engines, that is almost 28,000 gallons per minute per engine. Because the propellant is liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, those 28,000 gallons are super cold.Shuttle engine2-00448
Rocket engine1-00449

As an aside, Like most lots of young teenage boys, I became very interested in space travel when I was an early teenager, and that interest led me to an interest in rockets. In the early 50s, the only serious books on space travel and rockets were translated from the German – Willy Ley’s Conquest of Space, I particularly remember – and that set my gold standard for what spaceships should look like. The Shuttle doesn’t  look like that. Still, it is a very impressive feat of engineering lovely conceived and executed.


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