So. Houston doesn’t get one of the real space shuttles. Fine. As a friend with ties to NASA says, “What would you expect from people who can’t even get our most famous quotation right?”
Of course she’s talking about the film Apollo 13 and the transformation of astronaut Jack Swigert’s, “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here” into “Houston, we have a problem”. The film makers had their reasons for the change, and it certainly didn’t detract from the film or from the space program. Still, a lot of things have been irritating folks since the announcement that Johnson Space Center will be home not to Discovery, Enterprise, Endeavour or Atlantis, but to Explorer, a shuttle replica built with a high percentage of plywood.
Be that as it may, communities surrounding Johnson Space Center have unbreakable ties with NASA. We continue to embody the spirit that enlivened our nation’s space program and we certainly know how to party. This weekend was party-time in Houston, as the city engaged in “Shuttlebration”, a city-wide tribute to the role of space exploration in our lives.
From the early pleasure of sitting in the morning shade, anticipating our shuttle’s arrival at the Kemah-Seabrook bridge, to the delight of the evening’s fireworks display, the first day of Shuttlebration was marvelous fun. At Seabrook Shipyard, the parking lot began to fill in the mid-morning hours, long before Explorer was scheduled to arrive. Across the channel, the crowd was increasing just as quickly. By noon, it felt like any other holiday, with plenty of eating and drinking, a little swimming in the Portofino pool, good music and lots of NASA gossip.
There was more than a touch of patriotic fervor, as well. As flags began to fly everywhere – from lawn chairs, flagstaffs, children’s hands and boat rigging – it could have been mistaken for the 4th of July.
As always happens on a holiday, the crowds on the water soon became as large as those on land. Law enforcement was everywhere, keeping an eye on speeders, inattentive boaters who weren’t keeping to the correct side of the channel and the occasional hotshot who thought he just might test the limits by making a run under the bridge.
Despite the party-like atmosphere, there was a real security operation taking place, and everyone was there – fire boats, sheriffs, police, towing services, the constabulary and the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Even the game wardens and the Texas Highway Patrol came to the party. Who knew the Highway Patrol had boats?
It probably was a good thing for the gendarmes to be out in force. No one wanted anything to happen to the hordes of gathered people, our beloved bridge or even our faux plywood shuttle, and you just never know. If you looked around and allowed yourself to indulge in a little paranoia, you could imagine threats everywhere – can you find some in these photos?
Eventually, the gossip and laughter died away as we got our first hint that Explorer was nearing the bridge. All traffic was stopped, both on the bridge and on the water. A small flotilla of security boats and a large Coast Guard helicopter cleared the channel in front of us, allowing free passage for the barge. Here and there, people commented on the sudden resemblance to 9/11, when all air and sea traffic was stopped and the waterways became so terribly silent.
But this was a day of celebration, and the biggest question remaining was whether the shuttle would make it under the bridge. It had been riding high in the water, but a combination of low tide and purposefully flooded compartments in the barge made passage possible. Accompanied by a buzzing cloud of security and television helicopters, it made its slow way under the bridge and into the channel that would take it to Clear Lake.
When the shuttle finally reached the Lake about an hour later, some of the first people to greet her were the girls we’d nicknamed “Wynken, Blynken and Nod”. They knew how to paddle, and seemed to be having a marvelous time. They thought they might go over and volunteer to take the shuttle the rest of the way home but, not wanting to shame the slow-moving tugs, they decided to hover at the periphery and watch with the rest of us.
Explorer’s arrival in Clear Lake was somehow both theatrical and old-fashioned, a combination of community theatre and family reunion. I’m sure the other shuttles will have fine receptions with great speeches and polished presentations. Certainly the folks at the Kennedy Space Center have their own attachment to the shuttle program, and feel some of the same affection for its equipment. Still, there’s something to be said for a red carpet made of red-painted plywood, and that’s what our plywood shuttle mockup had waiting for it – one of the best red carpets in the world.
Before it could take to the red carpet, however, it had to get to its berth at the Hilton. For that to happen, the tugs that had been guiding it had to give up their responsibility and allow smaller push-boats to guide it through the shallow lake. The whole process of switching took only ten minutes to complete, and didn’t even disturb the boy fishing off the back of his dad or grand-dad’s boat.
Once the switch was complete, the tugs headed off to wherever happy tugs go at the end of their day, and the flotilla that had accompanied Explorer began milling about, heading off to their docks or back down the channel for a little more fun on the water. With the first half of her journey nearly complete, our little shuttle seemed more than ready to dock and rest a bit before being loaded onto her land transport vehicle for the final leg of her trip to Johnson Space Center.
Things never go exactly as planned, of course. Early this morning someone discovered the careful measurements that had been taken were “off” just a tad, and the shuttle’s move across Nasa Parkway to the Johnson Space Center ended up involving the dismantling and reassembly of a few light poles along the way.
But never mind those troublesome details. When you get right down to it, we probably expected them. I wouldn’t even be surprised to know someone ended up saying, “Houston, we have a problem” in the middle of the transfer. But in the end, the challenges were met, the problems were solved, and Explorer is home. That’s just the way it should be, and that’s worth a weekend’s celebration.