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Friday, July 15, 2011

7 Awesome Images That Will Make You Mourn The Space Shuttle


Last week marked the final official mission of the Space Shuttle. It's over: No more manned space missions on the agenda. As of now, America is pursuing a "flexible path" space-flight program, which essentially means we have nothing. They'll say the program died because of funding cuts and age, but that's not the whole story. Astronauts and the Space Shuttle used to reign as the unquestionable rulers of badass, but then somewhere along the line, cultural opinion shifted, and somehow wrapping a man in a giant metal bullet and firing him into the face of the void became thought of as stuffy and boring. The space program didn't die because of budgetary concerns; it died because we forgot how goddamn awesome it was. And that's something we had no excuse for doing, as these images will prove:

#7. Burn Down the Sky

This is the Saturn V rocket, carrying the Apollo 11 moon mission:
This is the Discovery launch:
This is the Athena II:
These images bring up an important question: At what point did we forget that the Space Shuttle was, essentially, a program that strapped human beings to an explosion and tried to stab through the sky with fire and math? How jaded do we have to be to lose collective interest in that? We celebrate the 4th of July every year, all across the nation. If explosions are that important to us, why don't we just channel a third of our yearly fireworks budget into one big bastard of a shot -- one mad, screaming, man-made asteroid hurled right back up into the face of nature, just to prove to the bitch that she doesn't have a lock on that kind of thing?
The Endeavour, mankind's polite rebuttal to the meteor strike.

#6. What Void?

With most photographs being taken in the contextless void, it's easy to forget that astronauts are just human beings wrapped up in fancy clothes, floating miles up in the air, surrounded on all sides by a lethal nothing. And then you see an image like this:
An image that really drives home the fact that these are people -- tiny, fragile beings that die if they swallow a pretzel wrong or slip in the shower -- and they're existing so far removed from the planet they could be saying, "Oh excuse me, New Zealand, I didn't see you there."
Space is a vast and frightening thing; it is an extreme and murderous absence; it's the closest physical metaphor for the disturbing unknowns that follow death; space is a villain from a children's book -- it's the Nothing from The NeverEnding Story. And now, here's Bruce McCandless, an astronaut on the Challenger, taking the first untethered spacewalk.
He had no ties to any earthly bond whatsoever, he was hundreds of miles beyond the point where the sky gives up, and he said, "No, thank you," to a lifeline, then went for a bit of a constitutional ... into the abyss.

#5. Battle Tanks are GO!

Remember those famous pictures of the Mars rovers, where they looked like tiny, plastic, chintzy little toys?
Well, this is what the new model, Curiosity, looks like:
It looks like something that should be laying siege to G.I. Joe Headquarters. It looks like it's about to call Optimus Prime a pussy and then kill John Connor for good this time.
The NASA PR campaigns showed us the rover looking tiny, flat, kind of bland, and nobody cared. No matter how crazy awesome it was that we were playing RC cars on Mars, the public didn't have a catchy visual, so everybody wrote it off as more dry science stuff. But look at that thing again: Every kid in the world needs a toy version of that, and they need it right now, because that's how kids need everything. Release a scaled down RC car of Curiosity, call it something like "CrushStomper," slap a couple of ads up on episodes of Bakugan, and there you go: You've got NASA funded for the next 10 years.

#4. He's Got the Whole World ... in His Face.

Odds are you're at work right now, reading this instead of collating or conglomerating or whatever adults with real jobs are supposed to do. Also, odds are your cell phone has a camera in it. So let's perform a quick social experiment: Fire it up, and take a self-portrait of you just doing your job, right now.
How'd that picture turn out?
Does that gripping image of you making crude pixel-tits in Excel fill onlookers with awe and wonder? Does that photograph of you quietly mourning the death of the last Red Bull capture the insanity, beauty and existential terror of mankind's progress?
Funny, because when Clay Anderson, flight engineer for Expedition 15 tried this same experiment at his job ...
... it totally did all of those things like a motherfucker.



#3. Thrust Diamonds

That's the engine of an SR-71 Blackbird being tested, but you can be forgiven if you panicked just now and slapped at the button that calls James Bond into your office. (Also, hey, thanks for reading, Q! Big fan.) The shapes in that Death Ray up there aren't tricks of the camera, either -- they're called Thrust Diamonds, and to NASA, that shit ain't even a thing.
Brother can't take a dump up in NASA without firing off some Thrust Diamonds.

#2. The Crawler-Transporters

If you're the kind of person that skips right to the moneyshot when watching porn, you've probably only seen the actual take-off portion of a shuttle launch. And hey, if a missile being fired into the throat of the unknown armed with a warhead of "dudes who just don't give a fuck" doesn't impress you, surely nothing else about the launch process will.
How about the world's largest tank?
The machine that brings the shuttle to the launchpad is called a crawler-transporter, and it's the largest self-powered land vehicle in the world. They're twin mobile platforms weighing 3,000-tons a piece, 131-feet-long by 114-feet-wide, driven by a crew of 30, and powered by four 1,400 (not a typo) horsepower engines, one on each corner. That big, fuck-all structure holding the shuttle up there? Here it is cruising down the highway.
For scale, here it is next to a human being:
It's like taking an oil rig out for a spin.
It costs the USA $1 billion more than NASA's entire budget to provide air conditioning for the Armed Forces in the Middle East. Clearly, our national priorities are skewed towards conflict. That's kind of messed up, but OK, fine: Objectively, we know the crawler-transporter isn't armed or armored, but next time we start a war, let's do it by driving Hans and Franz up there (their actual names, by the way) right into the other guys' capital. I promise you, that war would be won in an afternoon.
I mean, would you shoot at it?

#1. The Space Shuttle is Metal as F*ck

Here's the Space Shuttle doing its best impression of a Dio album cover.
Large version.
This isn't some lucky fluke shot, either. Lightning loves itself some Shuttle. Here's another:
Large version.
Jesus Christ. That's clearly the tower of some evil techno-wizard.
Holy shit. That's the picture you'd see on the real estate brochure for God's house. Here's another angle:
Large version.
Somewhere, there's a big-haired anime character with a disproportionately large sword who's trying to shut down the shield reactors so he can get in there.
All I've really done here is (hopefully) prove that the Space Shuttle was badass, but I'm an adult now, and I understand that we can't keep funding something just because it's bitchin'. That's not how budgets work; there's no spreadsheet column for "badical." We didn't fund these programs to start with because they were cool; it was because we had to get to space before the Russians, and because we had to establish a sense of national identity in a conflicted period in our nation's history. In a nutshell, we went into space because nothing brings people together like shoving something in somebody else's face.
So in the interest of that: I heard Europe talking the other day, America, and I mean -- I don't want to start anything here, so you didn't hear it from me -- but they were saying you don't go into space anymore because you're scared. Then they said that Italy was a much bigger landwang than Florida, and Africa made some crack about how the Gulf of Mexico must be cold this time of the year, and then all the other continents laughed.
Are you really gonna take that?