"Hey, you know what would be hilarious? When the space shuttle lands, everyone should be dressed as apes!"-The entire Internet, July 2011
Over the past week, I've seen the shuttle/apes joke no fewer than five times — three via Twitter, twice on Reddit. And that's just what I've seen. It's not like I'm a one-man Google, jotting down every word that happens on the Internet, so there were probably a couple more. Hey, it's a perfectly fine joke, and had I thought of it myself I would have tweeted it too. But I didn't have to, because every time someone did, the joke was scooped up by tiny hands and pulled into the cloud, seen by thousands of strangers.
(Besides, I refuse to believe that NASA landing crews have never pulled this prank on astronauts. It HAS to have happened at some point, right? Since the premiere of Planet of the Apes in February 1968, there have been 149 US astronaut landings. At least one of those missions ended with fake apes. Guaranteed.)
Here's why I mention the joke thing: No part of this scenario was possible when the space shuttle first launched. The very idea that some guy's joke could accidentally become a piece of mass media would have been science fiction. We have reached a point where the spaceship that flies on rockets to the orbiting international research station and then glides back down to Earth is quaint next to the worldwide computer network that lets us share jokes about the spaceship.
To me, that seems backwards. Despite its age, the space shuttle is something that should always be seen as the far-flung future. It's a spaceship! Doing spaceship things! IN SPACE! So what if my phone has more processing power than the original shuttles? They've been upgraded since then, for Pete's sake. To do even more spaceship things.
A couple Fridays back, as the countdown to Atlantis' launch sat streaming on my desktop, I kept trying to think of something funny to put on Twitter. Nothing. Total blank. Finally I realized I had to go the dreaded sincere route. What I came up with was this: "Keep trying to think of something funny to say while streaming the shuttle launch, but really I'm just a kid in 1982 watching the future." Which was true. I'll admit that I long since took the shuttle program for granted, and haven't watched the launches in years. This one managed to feel a little bit like the old days, like walking into the big league ballpark for the very first time all over again.
Look, maybe this is the beginning of a long nadir for manned space flight in America, maybe not. Maybe private companies will spark innovation, maybe not. That's fine. Right now, the space shuttle Atlantis is from the far-flung future. That is, until it lands in a few hours, when it will instantly become a relic. In the meantime, if the first two minutes of this don't strike you as completely bad-ass, then I'm not quite sure what to tell you.