11 Oct

I know I shouldn’t play favorites. And I also know I shouldn’t anthropomorphize spacecraft to the extent that I probably do. But despite all of that, before I got a chance to see Atlantis up close this summer, Endeavour was always my favorite of the orbiters.

I’m not sure why. It could be because it was the baby orbiter — only a little younger than me. It could be the fact that it uses the British spelling of the word. It could be the name itself — along with Discovery and Voyager, it’s one of the best purely descriptive names (that is, not named for a scientist or a character in mythology).

According to NASA’s lovely summary of Endeavour’s history,

Endeavour was named after a ship chartered to traverse the South Pacific in 1768 and captained by 18th century British explorer James Cook, an experienced seaman, navigator and amateur astronomer. He commanded a crew of 93 men, including 11 scientists and artists.
Cook’s main objective, tasked by the British Admiralty and the Royal Society, was to observe the Transit of Venus at Tahiti. This reading enabled astronomers to find the distance of the Sun from the Earth, which then could be used as a unit of measurement in calculating the parameters of the universe.
Cook’s achievements on Endeavour were numerous, including the accurate charting of New Zealand and Australia and successfully navigating the Great Barrier Reef. Thousands of new plant specimens and animal species were observed and illustrated on this maiden voyage. Cook also established the usefulness of including scientists on voyages of exploration.”

A painting of the HMS Endeavour -- which reminds me that there were painters at the STS-135 launch. I wonder how their work turned out? Would love to see the final products.

I think all of that’s kind of fantastic. Because of course scientists are useful. I am always a fan of stories dealing with the gradual discovery of things that seem painfully obvious now (like how doctors should wash their hands between patients?).

My recent habit of rooftop stargazing has also made me wonder about the earliest astronomers. What would I have concluded, without any of my modern knowledge, about the changes in the Moon from night to night? About the fact that planets don’t flicker? I mean, no wonder people in the past thought any crazy thing they thought about the stars. I am pretty consistently glad that modern society has figured this all out for me, so that I can focus on things like the brain.

(Feel free to picture, here, someone 300 years in the future thinking to herself, “I’ve been wondering about the earliest neuroscientists. What would I have concluded, without any of my modern knowledge, about the problem of consciousness? No wonder people in the past thought….”)

Every little bit helps, and it sounds like the earlier Endeavour did more than a little bit to shape our earliest true understanding of the universe. Here, though, is the Endeavour we’re gathering to commemorate today, in what is, for my money, one of the most beautiful images in all of history.

Just, wow. (Image from NASA)


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