By Sharon Klotz
At this morning’s NASA press briefing, Shuttle Weather Officer Kathy Winters (yes, that’s really her name) said there was a 70% chance that weather conditions would prevent Atlantis from launching as planned tomorrow. I recently asked a long-time space reporter –- who’s covered the shuttle program closely for more than 20 years –- how many attempts it’s taken to fulfill the 134 launches leading up to this one, the last and final STS-135. The answer? About 500. So, statistically speaking, a NON-launch is about three times more likely than an actual launch.
By tomorrow, the launch either will or will not have happened. From the vantage point of today, however, both conditions exist simultaneously. NASA’s decision-making process involves constant sweeps of information (local weather, weather at three international shuttle abort sites, conditions for air-based reconnaissance) forecasted over time (70% weather will interfere tomorrow, 60% on Saturday, 40% on Sunday), cross-correlated with myriad other factors, and extruded through a complex web of contingency requirements, boundary conditions, and constraints. At any given moment, the resultant phase space of possibility is a complicated topology of probabilistic outcomes, none of which is excluded until and unless conditions clearly rule it out. Part of what makes today –- the day before a launch or a non-launch -– so interesting is that NASA never stops re-shaping that probabilistic topology. Every moment brings a new iteration of not-knowing.
Though wrapped in an analytical scaffolding, and though following seemingly literal production rules, the process nonetheless yields fluidity, complexity, and simultaneity. As of this afternoon, all of tomorrow’s possible conditions exist. NASA projects them all with a detachment that might make a Zen master smile. What will or won’t happen hasn’t happened -– or not –- yet, so, just as Schrodinger’s cat is both alive and dead until we open the box to find out, so, too, tomorrow’s launch is both happening and not.
Yes, this last launch has our attention riveted. We’re all waiting for it to happen. The possible not-happening, though, shows us NASA’s process, too: an object lesson in what Rilke may have meant by “Live the questions.”
Sharon Klotz is an educational consultant who is attending the last launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.