Faith and Religion

SUNDAY COMMENTARY:Last Liftoff for a Historic Institution?


father dean

Fr. Dean of St. Mary’s church

It takes a gargantuan effort to launch even a single shuttle.  STS-135 “last Space Shuttle mission” is a bitter-sweet final launch.  Behind the scenes, thousands unseen heroes all collaborate in what amounts to a minor miracle every time a mission is successfully brought to conclusion.

Reading statistics regarding what it takes to lift the 4.5 million ton shuttle machine to its orbit, between 115 and 400 miles high, I was deeply impressed.  In his online article, “How Space Shuttles Work” Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D. lists the following components: two solid rocket boosters (SRB), three main engines of the orbiter, the external fuel tank (ET), orbital maneuvering system (OMS) on the orbiter.

“The SRBs are solid rockets that provide most of the main force, 71%, needed to lift the space shuttle off the launch pad.  In addition, the SRBs support the entire weight of the space shuttle orbiter and fuel tank.  There are many details to this process.  Each SRB has the following parts:  solid rocket motor – case, propellant, igniter, nozzle; solid propellant;  fuel – atomized aluminum (16 percent); oxidizers – ammonium perchlorate (70 percent); catalyst – iron oxide powder (0.2 percent); binder – polybutadiene; acrylicacid acrylonite (12 percent); curing agent – epoxy resin (2 percent); jointed structure; synthetic rubber o-rings between joints; flight instruments; recovery systems; parachutes (drogue, main); floatation devices; signaling devices; explosive charges for separating from the external tank; thrust control systems; self-destruct mechanism.” 
“Wow,” I thought.  “It’s almost as complicated as launching a new royal wedding.”

… and so, from beside a hospital bed, I glanced up and saw in just a moment’s news, our attention was swinging from Cape Canaveral to London, and back again.  But I couldn’t help travelling back in time, to that fateful day when another famous royal couple wed before the enchanted eyes of the entire world.  How radiant were they, Charles and Lady Diana, in the beginning!

And yet even their marriage carried within it mechanisms of self-destruction.   Charles and Di were united in matrimony, in fact, just 109 days after the first shuttle, Columbia, was launched.  As we watched Elton John make his entry into Westminster Abbey yesterday, I could almost hear him singing, once again, “Candle in the Wind.”

For decades the British have debated whether or not maintaining the royalty is worth all the trouble.  Yet their obsession with the royal family continues, undaunted by all the scandals, the gossip, the empty pageantry, and the pain.  After all, William is the son of beloved Princess Diana, and in some sense, in the beautiful week of Easter, has resurrected her memory.  We all hope and pray that this marriage will succeed.  Everything happened with British precision, even down to that well-practiced kiss so carefully scrutinized by the press. 

Unfortunately, us Americans did not fare so well.  As Donna Leinwand Leger wrote for USA Today, “NASA abruptly canceled the launch of space shuttle endeavor on Friday, ruining what was to be a historic day brimming with the emotion of gravely wounded Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords as she saw her husband command the shuttle program’s next-to-last flight into space.”  What a dismal outcome, when we hoped that the combined power of 200 tornadoes could have been redeemed in the launching of an event to rival the royal wedding.  It seems as if the British will keep on launching new royal families, long after the Space Shuttle program has been mothballed.  I wonder if they haven’t got something to teach us, after all.  Meanwhile, I listen to Elton John, singing – you guessed it – “- and it seems to me that you lived your life like a candle in the wind……your candle burned out long before your legend ever did…”
But the legend-making doesn’t end in Florida, nor in London, but in Rome.

890 miles Southeast of Westminster stands another monolithic church, one which, as I write this paragraph, is swelling with crowds even greater and more enthusiastic than those which Friday jammed the streets of London.

This basilica is named, of course, St. Peter’s, and the faithful are gathering from around the world not for a temporal event, but rather for a declaration that bears significance for all eternity.  For today, May 1st, John Paul II will be pronounced “blessed”.  And just as Mother Theresa quietly slipped into eternity, just days after Lady Di’s traumatic accident and death riveted the attention of billions worldwide.  So now the greatest pope of the last century – and doubtlessly one of history’s greatest men – will launch into the orbit of those approaching sainthood in this second stage called “Beatification”.

But it’s not the Roman Catholic Church which has made this determination – any more than the British Army forged Kate and William’s love or NASA first conceived of an orbiter which could return to earth.  The decision was God’s, and the Pope’s.   The Church is simply there to weigh the evidence.

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