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Wayne Hale's NASA Blog: Watching airplanes

Status Report From: NASA Blogs
Posted: Friday, October 24, 2008

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A few years ago I had to pick my wife up at the airport and I neglected to check on the flight status. After parking, I hustled into the terminal only to find that her flight was delayed by not quite an hour. Not long enough to leave and do something else, but too long to sit idly in the terminal building. Then I remembered what we used to do when I was a kid.

I grew up in a small town, not terribly small but certainly not large. We had an airport which was served by one regularly scheduled airline using a turboprop plane with three or four flights each day. Of course there were the general aviation flights as well. In those quaint, long ago times, folks would actually go to the airport just to watch the airline arrive and take off. My family did. When I was a teenager, we used to go there and park at the end of the runway. Sometimes we would idly dream about where the plane could take us, exotic journeys to far off places. A generation or two earlier, I guess we would have gone to the train depot for the same reason. Small town boredom. The thrill of the possible. The highest technology that we could actually see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears. All the unimaginable possibilities of a world that seemed very large.

In those days, people dressed in formal clothes to go on a trip. I remember men in coats and ties wearing hats, women in long dresses wearing gloves, all clambering up the steps to the airplane door. No t-shirts and short pants in those days, no siree.

So years later, waiting for my wife, I decided to take the stairs to the top floor of the terminal -- a parking lot -- and watch the planes. I found a good spot, by the railing, close to the edge, and was entertained watching all the airliners land, takeoff, taxi hither and yon, trucks and baggage carts scurrying busily about.

And after a few minutes, guess what? A visit from the airport security people. Seems I had attracted their attention on the surveillance cameras. A little embarrassed, I explained what I was doing up there. The two young men in uniform were visibly amused to hear an old guy explain that when he was young people actually went to the airport just to watch the planes take off and land. They decided I was harmless but advised me to go back into the terminal and watch through the windows.

How times have changed. I travel on airlines too much these days. I get to go in the "experienced traveler" TSA line. My frequent flier cards runneth over. And all the excitement has gone out of travel. Now it is merely a hassle; get to the airport early, follow all the rules, check in, go through security with all its indignities, get stuck in a small seat with minimal service, land, and hope my bag made it with me. No excitement here. No thrill. No romance.

Somehow we have sucked all the romance and excitement out of air travel --- or travel of any kind.

And you know, it is a kind of magic. Just sit down, read a book or a magazine, watch a movie, or take a nap and in just a short time you are hundreds or thousands of miles from home. No real effort required on your part, just sit there.

It is a kind of magic.

Many people tell me that space travel is not exciting. They listen to presentations concerning the most exciting explorations of our times which are delivered in monotone voices with incomprehensible and complex graphics. Somehow, we have sucked the excitement and romance out of space travel.

But it really an extraordinary kind of magic.

So if you are present at one of those boring, incomprehensible, utterly pedestrian talks about exploring space -- don't sit there! Don't let the magic get paved over with boredom! Get up on your feet and shout the speaker off the lectern! Don't let the dull and boring smother the what space travel truly is: exotic, thrilling, exciting, romantic, and magical! This is too important to sit back and let the dreams die; don't let the young people grow up without dreams.

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