Friday, September 21, 2012

The Endeavour Has Landed: The Symbolism

Houston, we have a problem. The Endeavour Has Landed. How Symbolic!

Man has looked to the moon and stars for millennia, and dreamt of exploring space. The history of man is to explore the farthest stretches  of the earth, to discover, to bring back, and to colonize. From out of Africa to the Universe. It is part of our destiny.

The Space Shuttle Endeavour landed at LAX at 12:53PM on Friday, September 21, 2012. It completed its 26th and final voyage. From reaching for the stars, it will now be an exhibit at the California Science Museum to delight, educate, and wow future generations on the ground.

The landing, after a 1500’ flyby over Sacramento, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hollywood sign, three times over the Griffith Observatory, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Boeing’s Huntington Beach facility, and breaching the No-Fly Zone over Disneyland, formally closes an era.

We watched the end of an era, the closing of a historical period, as the shuttle flew by on the back of a 747, trailed by two escorting fighter planes., an awesome sight, an inspirational sight, but we all realized it is the end.

The five space shuttles, Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery, and Endeavour, completed 135 missions from 1982 - 2011. Two tragedies occurred, with Challenger and Columbia, which is two too many, but accidents and tragedies are to be expected when exploring into the far unknown. Technology always has unknowns until tested.

One of the major issues with the aerospace industry has historically been the “unk unks,” the unknown unknowns. Two tragedies in space and one on the ground for the Americans in space exploration is a fairly safe record.

The Endeavour landing is highly symbolic because NASA has lost the ability to engage in manned space exploration.  It outsources flights to the International Space Station to Russia at $23 million/pop. It’s subcontracting future space efforts to private companies, such as SpaceX.

One of President Obama’s mottos four years ago was “Yes we can.”

Now, it’s “No we can’t. No we won’t.”

President Kennedy proposed landing a man on the moon. Presidents Johnson and Nixon carried through, but subsequent presidents lost interest. No recent president has been a strong advocate of manned space exploration. President Obama asked NASA to investigate the Toyota accident problems, a symbolic grounding.

We stayed up late to watch Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 21, 1969 at 1:17 PST. Henry Rogers, who shared office space with the small law firm I worked for, was in his late 80's. His office wall had a photo on it of Henry riding circuit on a stagecoach in California decades earlier. Watching the moon walk, living the change from stage coach to rocket, was one of the most exciting experiences in his long and distinguished life.

Henry symbolized the meaning of the Moon Walk to Americans. We could do it; Americans could do anything. Then.

Not today.

NASA has become bureaucratic and sclerotic. It is unable to develop a replacement rocket or vehicle for the shuttle, after spending billions of dollars. You can only learn so much on the ground. You only learn so much without being there.

NASA is a symbol of modern America.

The shuttle emerged from Southern California for that is where the genius of aerospace was. The industry was centered in Los Angeles. One in four aerospace workers were in Southern California in highly paid jobs. 15 of the 25 largest aerospace companies were in Southern California, led by Consolidated Vultee (Convair), Douglas, Lockheed, Hughes, Martin, North American, and Northrup.

Southern California was built on Hollywood, oil, and aerospace. World War II, followed by Korea and the Cold War, gave birth to a large aerospace industry from Ventura County to San Diego. Aerospace employed more than entertainment until the 1980’s.

270,100 worked in the aerospace pants in 1970. By 2010 it was down to 91,100, and it’s still dropping. The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the Cold War and prompted the collapse of California’s aerospace plants. The industry quickly lost 200,000 jobs after 1990.

Part of North American Rockwell’s Downey plant, which built the shuttles, is now a studio. Another part was being demolished as the Endeavour flew by. Lockheed stopped manufacturing in 1992 at its famous Burbank plant. A Target is now on the site.

Douglas’ Long Beach plant at its peak in World War II employed 150,000 workers. It employed 80,000 in the 1980’s.  It’s now down to under 3,000 under Boeing’s leadership, producing only the C 17 cargo plane. It will close next year without future orders. The runways though serve as a great field for a Jet Blue hub.

Much of the remaining aerospace industry is located in Palmdale at Plant 42 by Edwards Air Force Base, where Boeing, Lockheed, and Northrup have substantial operations.

One sign of the brilliance of Southern California’s aerospace industry is that much of the drone research and production occurs in the area.

The waiting area at Disney’s California Adventure's Soaring Over California ride is an archive of the Southern California aerospace industry, hence the appropriateness of the fly-over.

Man can dream, and look to the stars, but the closest we will get to it in Southern California is California Adventure, the California Science Center, and the Griffith Observatory.

No comments: