On eve of Endeavour's last launch, "Shuttle Ennui" (Xeni on The Madeleine Brand show)


Download audio (MP3), or listen to the show here.

I joined The Madeleine Brand Show on the radio today for a chat around what some jokingly refer to as "shuttle ennui," felt by many at NASA (and others whose livelihoods depend on NASA) as the space shuttle program ends.

We so often think of things as large as America's space program as abstractions, and for good reason. Billions of dollars, thousands of people, huge human-made machines that shoot fire and climb toward the stars. But NASA is made of people. And along with all of the NASA employees and contractors whose work relates to the shuttle program, everyone from the Cape Canaveral donut shop owner to the journalists who cover space are affected by the program's end. Right now, to put it simply: everyone's bummin'.

Today, the countdown began for the final launch of shuttle Endeavour, scheduled to lift off Monday morning 8:56:26 a.m. EDT. She'll head to the International Space Station to deliver an array of supplies, including spare parts for the robot DEXTRE ("The Canada Hand"). This will be the 36th shuttle mission to the ISS, STS-134. Last month's launch attempt was scrubbed when problems were discovered in fuel line heaters. One more shuttle launch is scheduled for June, the STS-135 mission with shuttle Atlantis. But that's it: the end of the shuttle era—and the end of tens of thousands of skilled American technology workers' jobs.

I've spent much of the last few weeks wandering around Kennedy Space Center and Johnson Space Center, with Miles O'Brien and the SpaceFlightNow crew, talking to people about how the end of the program impacts their lives. Along the way, I met a number of Boing Boing fans at NASA, and contractors and space nerds who are part of our greater family of happy mutants. Hear more about what I observed in the radio segment.

Do tune in to SpaceFlightNow for Monday's launch webcast with Miles O'Brien, David Waters and astronaut Leroy Chiao. It really is the best launch coverage there is.

Space fans may also enjoy tuning in to SomaFM's "Mission Control," NASA audio plus trippy ambient electronica, live Monday from JSC. A fun related post from them here.

Related: Flickr galleries of iPhone snapshots I shot on my recent space adventures. KSC (Florida), and JSC (Texas). Above and below, a few of those pix: Shuttle patches behind the counter, at the cigar store where reporters covering launches (including Miles) buy stogies for liftoff luck; a door at nearby Merritt Island airport; the Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB, at KSC; and an obligatory spaceman smooch I snuck at JSC.



XeniSpaceManSmooch.jpg cigarstore2.jpg


(All images: Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike (2.0) snapshots from Xeni's photostream)



  1. 36th?

    I read on a NASA photo release not too long ago that the flag painted on the side of the VAB is roughly the size of a basketball court.

    Farewell shuttle, you marvelous machine…you were decades ahead of your time.

  2. As a current (at least until August) employee at NASA’s Johnson Space Center for the Space Shuttle, I just want to thank y’all for all of your recent space related coverage. I’m glad more people have been able to share in the joy and sadness of these final few missions.

    1. Thanks friend. Following Endeavour’s last launch has made me feel like a kid again.

  3. Having followed the space program for many decades my moment of greatest disappointment came some 5 years ago when I saw a program shot on the occasion of a change of administrators. It was the worst case of shameless butt kissing I’d seen in years.
    One thing we forget is that the team that put man on the moon was disbanded shortly after the last manned lunar mission.

  4. “This will be the 36th shuttle mission, STS-134.”

    Actually it’s the 134th shuttle mission. It’s the 36th shuttle mission to the space station.

  5. The loss of all this talent is truly a tragedy. This unique collective is capable of remarkable creativity and problem solving that will be lost when it is dispersed. This type of organization of talent is a perfect example of synergy, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is the short sighted destruction of a source of incredible potential by a nation with an absurd sense of priorities. This is not just a loss of skills and talent, but of a collective memory and intangible web of relationships and complementary abilities that will evaporate away. A meaningful strategic plan and a long term financial commitment to Nasa would enable us to continuously build upon this resource and expand upon its capabilities. Instead, once again, we will we find ourselves some years from now spending even more time and money trying to rebuild a similar team. Its like tearing down the Sistine Chapel for the bricks. Is there any way to measure the cost of throwing away this mental capital and the investment we made in it?

    1. You said it better than I could. And it is something I really want to know about.

      Private industry is NOT the answer to this question.

      There are things that governments do better. The Space program is one of them. Of course it took the military threat to drive a lot of this, “We must control the high ground!” but we used that drive to help us in so many other ways.

      As you can imagine I watch and read a lot of science fiction. I remember watching an episode of SG-1 where an alien from another race asked about our planetary defenses or our fleet of military space vessels. It was embarrassing for Jack O’Neill to say, “We have a shuttle.”

      I’m not that worried about alien invasion as much as I’m worried about our inability to think about future situations where we need to get humans up and out of a small fragile ecosystem.

  6. Once upon a long time ago, I lived in Cocoa Beach and worked as a reporter and copy editor at Florida Today (the newspaper framed in Xeni’s photo of the paper box). Like most Gannett news rags, it is an overly conservative and badly managed piece of sh!t, and I was glad to leave Brevard County in my rear-view mirror. Still, news of the last few shuttle flights has left me feeling melancholy for the same East-Central Florida community, where the local economy has been tied for 60 years to the successes and failures of the spaceflight program.

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