Parts of a Whole

I stood on a metal platform at the top of a flight of stairs earlier this morning and looked across a cavernous manufacturing floor. The view wasn’t particularly picturesque and a photo of what I was looking at wouldn’t have caused many waves outside of a trade magazine. But I was captivated, so I paused for a moment to drink it in.

I’m not an engineer by trade, nor a mechanic – that much should be blatantly obvious – and the most familiarity I have with manufacturing facilities is from touring the boat plant where my dad works. That said, I knew that I was looking at salvaged solid rocket booster casings that had, in their prior working life, been used to launch a Space Shuttle. 

If you don’t know what you’re looking at, the casings don’t seem very impressive. The best way to describe them would be large, featureless white cylinders. I could go through the trouble of looking up the physical dimensions of the casings, but I’ve found that unless you’re someone who’s worked on building the equipment, visual references are much better for a sense of scale. So here’s a partial view of what one of these would look like during the assembly process:

One of the propellant-filled solid rocket boosters for STS-134 being assembled at Kennedy Space Center. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

It’s difficult for me to articulate precisely what I felt looking out over the facility. I mean, it’s one thing to look at a picture of a rocket or a video of a launch – but it’s another thing entirely to see for yourself what part of it looks like. I knew that I was looking not only at a tangible piece of America’s history, but also a very real part of its future. Knowing that the five-segment solid rocket boosters being used for the Space Launch System are refurbished Space Shuttle boosters, I knew that I was quite possibly in the same room as a piece of hardware that could send an astronaut to Mars. It’s an amazing feeling.

Looking out at those rocket booster casings was also a pretty potent reminder that individual parts may look insignificant, but when combined, they can lead to something powerful and magnificent. It was a nice reminder to me that even though my end goal isn’t always in sight, my results will be worth the hard work.

Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-131) lifts off from Kennedy Space Center on April 5, 2010. Photo Credit: NASA/Tony Gray and Tom Farrar


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