I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that on the final Shuttle launch NASA would still be lying to the American public. I hadn't watched a launch for years, primarily because they make me feel physically sick. Partly this stems from the fact that the craft is a death-trap, but the manipulative, disingenuous garbage that accompanies the Shuttle traveling "into space" also contributes to my nausea.
As those of you who have read Douglas Adams will know, space is big. When I was teaching introductory astronomy, one of the first assignments I gave was intended to give students some idea of the scale of our neighborhood. For the first time ever I've worked out the numbers using "British" units. Somebody should probably check my arithmetic.
Suppose the Earth is a basketball. On this scale the Moon would be a bit smaller than a baseball twenty-four feet away. I think that's quite an instructive image. On this same scale the Sun would be a bit less than two miles away. If you can imagine something like a spherical five-story building that is very hot indeed then you're getting a decent idea of the Sun.
So we've learned that in our immediate vicinity - our little corner of space - the Moon at only twenty-four feet away is much closer than the Sun, and the Sun is much bigger than both the Earth and Moon.
During the countdown before Atlantis commenced its eight minute journey into "space," various key personnel added whimsical speeches to their usual pre-launch routine. We were reminded of the thirty magnificent years of the Shuttle program and its pivotal role in space exploration. The notion of the Shuttle "exploring space" came up time and time again, wearing more enamel from my teeth on each occasion.
Let's put the Shuttle on our scale model of the Earth-Moon-Sun system. Remember the Moon is twenty-four feet away, the Sun almost two miles. On this scale the Shuttle orbits the basketball that is representing the Earth at a height of one quarter of an inch.
Exploring space? The Shuttle explores space in the same way an automobile going round Daytona International Speedway explores Florida. Except much less so. The idea is completely preposterous, although it does invite further comparisons between NASA and NASCAR that I'll explore in the second part of this rant.
I think what really bugs me about NASA selling the Shuttle as space exploration is that it reflects the broader NASA culture of lying to the public. And that in turn reflects a deeper culture that led to the unnecessary deaths of fourteen astronauts. NASA lied to them too.