Thursday, July 21, 2011

"Mission complete, Houston."

Please note: Both photos used in this post are courtesy of NASA.

The space shuttle Atlantis landed for the final time today. She and her remaining sister ships, Discovery and Endeavor, have served their purpose and will spend their retirement years on display to the public. While this may not seem a big deal to some, I’ve been weepy all day.

Go on, make nerd girl jokes. I don’t care. The space shuttles characterize my generation, with the shuttle program being conceived not long after I was, and their presence has allowed generations of kids to grow up thinking that space travel is the norm, not the exception. The first shuttle flight came as I entered high school; the first tragedy just after I began college. I live in the state that spawned the second American, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, to fly into space and that also serves as home to Purdue University, which, for all its innate flaws (the main one being that it’s not Indiana University—Go Hoosiers!), has contributed over twenty astronauts to NASA, including Neil Armstrong, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee. I grew up with the now de-commissioned Grissom Air Force Base operating just up the road a ways, and, of course, am subsequently beset by an affinity for men in uniform for which my ex-military husband is eternally grateful.

In Teacher School, like many of my contemporaries (or at least the other nerd girl teachers) I proudly wore a sweatshirt emblazoned with a quote by teacher astronaut Christa McAuliffe, who died in the Challenger explosion. “I touch the future. I teach,” white lettering proclaimed against royal blue material that I wore until it fell apart. It was an insight and inspiration I would return to again and again with gratitude (especially since a somewhat jaded classmate of mine had suggested getting shirts with “I’m hiding under my desk from the future,” which seemed just a bit pessimistic).

Now what could a post commemorating and thanking the space shuttles Enterprise (part of the fleet though it never flew in space), Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis, as well as those dedicated astronauts who gave their most valiant efforts--and sometimes their lives--to serve their country?

It’s simple. NASA knew when it was time to let go of the old way of doing things to embrace the new. While I may get all sentimental about the shuttle program ending, NASA realizes they need to explore beyond the International Space Station and the shuttles simply can’t do that. Private contractors can deliver payloads and act as space taxis (yes, that word is being used now in conjunction with space travel), and besides, the shuttles are older now. It will be more expensive to replace them than to come up with another design that can do more.

Publishing faces the same transition. The old technologies and ways of doing things are out of date, too expensive, or simply don’t meet the needs of the reader. While there’s a certain nostalgia to holding on to something that has been a part of our lives for so long, we can no longer ignore the fact that as long as the earth keeps spinning, time will pass and people and society will change. Publishing must change with them or become obsolete in such a way that it won’t even rate being romanticized by future generations, who’ll view it as the out-of-it, unhip, uncool rebel without a clue.

The writing’s on the wall, and it reads: Traditional Publishing, Retired.

The astronauts at NASA will still be touching the stars and exploring the universe, just in a different vehicle more adapted to that purpose. There’s more than one way writers can touch the literary stars as well if they let go of the past and look toward the future.

In her piece for Reuters, reporter Irene Klotz included this quote from the astronaut who led the mission, US Navy Captain Chris Ferguson:

"Although we got to take the ride, we sure hope that everybody who has ever worked on or touched or looked at or envied or admired a space shuttle was able to take just a little part of the journey with us."

Thanks, Commander Ferguson. We did. :)