I spent the last three days at the Kennedy Space Center, for the inaugural meeting of the LAUNCH organization. We talked water, and saw some pretty interesting -- and occasionally remarkable -- innovations and proposals. I'll have more to say about them in a bit, but for now...
I grew up a space geek (and dinosaur geek, etc.), so the visit to KSC was a welcome reminder of those feelings. We didn't just get the basic tour; we actually got some behind-the-scenes stuff that was just amazing (and, because the shuttle program is ending soon, won't be replicable for much longer). We got to go into the shuttle processing facility, where one of the shuttles (in this case, Endeavor) gets cleaned and fixed and otherwise readied for an upcoming launch. This meant walking around beneath the shuttle, right below the heat-resistant tiles (and occasionally spotting when one of them needed to be replaced).
The photomontage at right was taken of the shuttle Discovery, set to launch in the next few weeks; I took the pictures while we were parked in the blast zone, where flames from the engines go in the initial moments of take-off. Anything in this zone would be instantly incinerated -- and even the fencing a few hundred yards behind us was bent and blackened.
(You can see all of the pictures I've made public at this link on Flickr.)
Even the normal tour items were pretty amazing -- the Saturn V rocket engines, the actual Apollo mission control consoles, and a piece of the Moon.
That you can touch.
As astounding as it all was, there was a subtle melancholy there, as well. The Constellation program to return to the Moon was canceled in the most recent NASA budget (with the money redirected to more robotic missions and long-range research, so I'm actually in full approval), and the engineers we spoke to all made a point of mentioning it unhappily.
But beyond that was the recognition that the massive rockets and space-stations programs are the apotheosis of 20th century engineering. These are artifacts of yesterday's version of tomorrow, the mechanistic urge on an unthinkable scale. And such remarkable, complex systems are ultimately tied to a worldview and process that celebrates the centralized and the controlled in an era that is increasingly neither.
The future of human civilization, in the end, lies in space. But getting there, and staying there, will look nothing like the heady visions of Apollo.