Jack Tame: Free to explore our own space

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The Enterprise shuttle - once seen, never forgotten. Photo / AP
The Enterprise shuttle - once seen, never forgotten. Photo / AP

It was a most unusual safety demonstration. More attention-grabbing than that Air New Zealand All Blacks video, and weirder than the one with Richard Simmons. But as we pushed forward across the JFK airport tarmac, safety was the last thing on anyone's mind.

The poor flight attendant went meekly through her positions: a lonely mime in a polyester-blend skirt, performing for no one. Frequent-flyer fatigue is one thing. Competing with Sudoku pads and iPods is another. Competing with a space shuttle is quite something else.

She had been only a few seconds in, laying out the seatbelt and unfolding the lifejacket, when the cockpit had interrupted: "Ladies and gentlemen, sorry to break our pre-flight routine ... Just quickly, I thought you might be interested to take a quick glance out the right-hand side of the aircraft. You might notice the space shuttle Enterprise."

The pilot's nonchalance was a little startling, for just 70m away, strapped to the roof of a Nasa jumbo jet, like an old mattress on a Cortina, was the space shuttle Enterprise.

It was partly covered, its wings and body safe under the canopy of a hangar. But its nose and tail poked out like toes from a sleeping bag. It was magnificent, and the passengers twisted for the windows to stare out in awe.

It was too much for my friend to resist. He grabbed his iPhone and leaned rudely over the man crammed in the middle seat between us.

The man in the middle was none too happy. The only person on the plane not craning out the window, he was 20 years of scowling and 15kg past his prime - not suited to middle seats and even less suited to my fidgety, 10-decibels-too-loud and iPhone-snap-happy mate.

But that's all the Enterprise is now, camera-phone fodder. Just like the rest of Nasa's retired fleet, it is destined for a museum and there are no plans for replacements. Instead, Nasa is outsourcing. It will rely on Russia to get astronauts into orbit and private companies to build spacecraft.

Already it's working. This week, after several anticlimactic delays, the first privately owned rocket to be commissioned by Nasa blasted into orbit. The brainchild of a brilliant entrepreneurial scientist, the end of a space age marked the beginning of a new one.

Still, as the passengers gazed across the JFK tarmac, it was all a little sad. A little nostalgic. The Enterprise will never again take a piggyback ride on a jumbo jet. The United States public may never again unite over their country's extraordinary scientific achievements, the innocent, levelling wonder that is space exploration. Perhaps it's all symbolic of a greater slip. Perhaps the end of galactic dominance marks the end of global dominance, too.

The moment had passed. The shuttle had passed. The safety demonstration had well passed. But as we readied for takeoff, we had one last glimpse.

"One more photo," said my friend, lurching out over the man in the middle seat. I sat straight and sucked in, trying not to block the window's view.

"Gee," snapped the man. "Why don't you just sit on my lap?"

It was a little unnecessary. I flushed red. Facing two hours of tension, I desperately hoped my friend wouldn't react.

"Why don't you piss off?" he snapped back.

The bag compartments shuddered. The nose lifted. We three blasted off into a great unknown.

- Herald on Sunday

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