I usually don’t get terribly excited about hot air balloons because most of them are kinda boring with bad color schemes. This past weekend was different: I had the opportunity to celebrate freedom, watch fireworks, and see a giant hot air balloon shaped like a space shuttle… all at the same time. The balloon shuttle (above) is the Patriot, a 190-foot tall balloon built by these proud Americans whose website includes a section called “Why America is Great’ as well as a series of vehicles completely covered with graphics of the american flag. I can not imagine a better group of people to be around for the 4th of July. I also couldn’t have known that this would be a great symbol for the end of the shuttle missions.
The irony of a hot air balloon morphed into the shape of a space shuttle is glaring: an eighteenth century technology stitched into the image of a vehicle still compelling in the 21st. Compelling because NASA is the only space agency that has been able to build and implement the use and reuse of a spaceplane. Other agencies have tried, but all have abandoned their vehicles. And that’s what the shuttle is: a vehicle. A vehicle born in an effort to both save resources (namely dollars) required to reach space, and to allow more folks to reach low earth orbit. However, the savings were not realized as hoped, public interest flagged and the shuttle era has been marked by tragedy for the entire crew of two shuttles. As vehicles, it is clear that shuttles are not perfect, but remain impressive. The people that enabled them deserve respect for the technial marvel of the a vehicle that has become the symbol of american space travel for a generation.
Moments ago, the shuttle Atlantis launched for the last time. The end of the shuttle era at NASA is sobering news, and many people writing about the final shuttle mission see a sad future for NASA without their most visible space vehicle. I happen to be more optimistic about NASA’s future because I believe the space agency has enough vision to strategize moving forward even if that vision isn’t as focused or as clear as it was during the Apollo era. To me, this news is a step forward, not backward, for the agency. Still, I understand the gravity of shuttles being permanently grounded. Hopefully healthy debate over the future of NASA will kindle broader public interest in the agency and deep space exploration.
The public at at this past weekend’s Fourth-of-July balloon festival were very interested in the Patriot balloon shuttle: getting close while it started to fill with air, taking pictures around it and walking up to touch its surface. When the balloon inflated and lifted off the ground, everyone in the park clapped. It was our shuttle launch, and I realized that I would never have the opportunity to watch an actual shuttle rumble into space, but this was the next best thing.
Later I watched the Patriot deflate, thinking of the final shuttle launch while cooling hot air escaped the aircraft fashioned into a spacecraft. Hot air is critical to levity the balloon as well as to the combustion engines of the spacecraft. It turns out that the political variety of hot air has inflated and deflated the buoyancy of NASA ever since the cold war catalyzed the space race. There’s plenty of hot air surrounding the final shuttle launch, making dire predictions about the relevancy of the agency, ignoring that the agency will focus on what’s next. In the eighteenth century, nobody could have imagined the sequence of advances that would lead to the Patriot deflating in front of me, and a lack of imagination now isn’t going to illuminate NASA’s future. The agency is devoted to exploration and discovery. The next vehicle is being built in the shadow of a giant, but will ultimately be better equipped to explore, discover and take us to the future.