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The Boston Globe

Magazine

April 10, 2011

Samuel Ting’s space odyssey

A long time ago, in a university not far away, this MIT physicist hatched a plan for a bold experiment in space. Now, $1.5 billion and nearly two decades later, it’s finally time for one last adventure: Unlocking the deepest mysteries of the universe.

All the way to every horizon, the whole day shines. The sand of the distant beach and the foam of the waves breaking on it. The white birds circling above, and, like opposites, like angels from alternative universes, the vultures, black and resonant, drifting in their higher orbits. Even the sky itself, a brilliant blue that seems to extend all the way to the Azores. Looking out from atop the gantry at Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, the immediate universe seems suffused with a common luminance, except for the vehicle, standing there stolid in the full spring sunshine. There is something charming about the fact that it does not sparkle the way the rest of the day does.

Built in 1991 to replace the doomed Challenger, Endeavour is still the newest of America’s space shuttles. On this day, it’s being prepared for its final flight, the second to last of the entire shuttle program. Endeavour looks old and worn, dinged and scarred. Its hull, once gleaming and white, is scorched to a dull gray in long streaks along its side and seared to black around its tail. It has to it the aspect of one of the old pickup trucks you pass along State Road 405 on the way down to the space center, their wheels half on the highway and half on the shoulder, their drivers disappeared into the scrub and brush to hunt alligators, or wild pigs, or bales of dope dropped off by runners from the Bahamas.

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