Once upon a time the event of humans being hurled into space by a few million pounds of barely contained explosives was the stuff of worldwide breath-holding. Back in the glory days, whenever Mercury or Gemini or Apollo sent our people up for a quick peek at the heavens, we'd all stop what we are doing, gather round a flickering TV screen and smile a deliciously stupid grin at the miracle unfolding before our eyes: "We're sending people into space! Human beings are leaving this planet!"
Sadly, things have changed, and not for the better, in my view -- at least, not when it comes to a launch. In our modern world we're too busy swapping pics of LOLcats to be bothered to notice that on this day -- May 16, 2011 -- a remarkable and terrifying and astoundingly brave phase in the history of exploration drew to a largely overlooked yet still glorious beginning of the end: the final-ever launch of the US Space Shuttle, as USS Endeavour lifted from Cape Canaveral. Endeavour's flight -- STS 134 -- will be the final flight of the Shuttle. The end of the line.
Rather than just watch a video clip and say "OK -- cool. Big rocket. (yawn) What did Jon Stewart do funny on the DAILY SHOW today...", take a few minutes (8 or 9, tops) to read this somewhat lengthy but entirely amazing essay first posted back in 2003 by Bill Whittle on his blog Eject Eject Eject:
Go on. It's more than worth it, if only to help you get a full appreciation of exactly what you are looking at when you then click and watch the video below.
Now, watch this and see if it doesn't hit you just a little harder:
Godspeed, Endeavour. May your return be blessedly and deceptively unremarkable.