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STS-134 Launch #2

Image by ewilfong via Flickr

On the morning of January 28, 1986 I was standing in my dorm room surrounded by 8 other girls. I had arm-twisted all of them into getting up “early” that day (meaning before noon) to watch the launch of STS-51. I was absolutely astounded that most of them had never seen a shuttle launch and none of them knew there would be a launch that morning. I made it my personal challenge to gather as many as I could and park them in front of the TV in our room. An hour before launch the room was filled with grumbling, cranky late-teenagers sipping coffee and glaring at me. 5 minutes before launch, the grumbling turned to interested questions and a bit of chatter. Once the “handoff” occurred (when the shuttle’s onboard computers take over internal control) at T-30 seconds, I’d swear a few of them were possibly excited. 20 seconds later, all of us 9 (plus 5 or 6 more in the hallway) were chanting “10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1…LIFTOFF!!” Once the launch vehicle had cleared the tower, amidst the cheers of “YEAH! GO BABY GO!!” I turned to the coffee pot smugly pleased to pour my first cup. A minute or so later, one of my roommates said,”Huh…that doesn’t look right. Hey, Ang…is that right?” I turned to look at the TV screen and saw the image that is still burned into my memory. Into all of our memories. Thanks to my insistence, we had all witnessed the death of 7 astronauts and the Orbiter Challenger. One girl stormed out with tears in her eyes and said to me, “Thanks a lot.” A few months later, she did actually thank me. She’d said, “If you hadn’t pulled me out of bed, I’d have never seen that.” You’re welcome.

My closest friends are aware of how passionate (translation: crazy) I am about the Shuttle Program. NASA in general, actually. I have somehow managed to sustain the “space fever” that obsessed the United States during the late 1960s. There was a  passion in this country that had been fueled by our nation’s leader. President John F. Kennedy stood before the country in the fall of 1962 and said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” He laid down a challenge to NASA, to the entire country, to land a man on the moon and return him to Earth…by the end of the decade. Less than 7 years later, Neil Armstrong took a step out of the Eagle and walked on the moon.

In 1972 Navy astronaut John Young was busy walking on the moon during Apollo 16 when he heard that the budget had been passed to allow for NASA’s plans; this included a vote to move forward with the Space Shuttle program. On April 12, 1981 Young became the first commander of a Shuttle mission when orbiter Columbia carried him and Robert Crippen on STS-1.

I remember that one, too. I remember watching intently while my classmates utilized the “free time” out of class to screw around like all other early teenagers. I couldn’t take my eyes from the screen. And so it began. I was curious and interested in the space program in the late 1970s. After STS-1, I was absolutely enamored.

I remember Apollo 17 at the end of 1972. I remember thinking, “It can’t be over. Not when I’ve just discovered it. I just fell in love. It can’t be over.” My father comforted me saying, “Baby, it’ll never really be over. NASA will never stop flying in space.” Now, I’m not so sure.

Tonight I sit in deep contemplation of the past 30 years of my life. I have been watching the Shuttle program since I was a middle-schooler. I now find myself in the same frame of mind that I was in during late 1972, thinking “It can’t be over.” This time, there is no one here to comfort me with promises of NASA’s future in space. I can honestly say that I have no idea what will happen next. I find this lack of stability slightly horrifying. Feels like someone is pulling the rug out from under me, but in slow motion. Most “normal” people are just passingly saddened. I’m devastated.

After over 30 years of service to NASA and this country, the orbiters Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis will be retired. Sent off to museums to serve the public as a reminder of our bright past in space exploration. I’m honored to have witness their inception. I’m equally honored to be witness to their end. I wondered if I were the only one. Google “space travel blog”  for yourself. You will find over 150 million hits. Guess I’m not alone.

Anyone who knows me on Facebook will tell you that I have made it my goal to make sure that everyone knows what’s happening with the space program. The end of the Shuttle Program. The financial peril that surrounds the Constellation Program. I wish everyone would pester their Congressmen and Senators to fight President Obama’s axe which had fallen onto the neck of the Constellation program. The 2011 budget discussed in February of this year has no inclusions for manned lunar missions. Effectively, Constellation (and Orion and Altair) is dead. NASA is still researching and pushing for lunar exploration as well as manned deep space missions. The President thinks we should funnel the space program into the private sector. I disagree.  The budget says NO. NASA says WE GOTTA.

On May 16, 2011 orbiter Endeavour OV-105 was poised (and looking like a rock star) for her final launch on STS-134. I was ready for the occasion with a pot of coffee brewed and champagne chilled. I’m quite fond of Endeavour. Actually, to be honest, I’m in love with her. As the Shuttle Ascent Highlights team so eloquently put it, she was “born out of necessity in a time of recovery…” In all honesty, she was built from spare parts after the loss of Challenger. I remember when she was built, when she was delivered, and her first launch. I was blessed to be able to witness her February 2010 launch on STS-130 thanks to my amazing husband who shares my passion for the Space Program. We were on the Causeway at Kennedy Space Center when she made an early-morning blast into low-Earth orbit. I cried. It was the most exquisitely beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I knew that the final launch of my favorite orbiter might be a bit emotional for me. Yeah…yeah it was.

During the pre-launch countdown Commander Mark Kelly made a speech from the cockpit, as do most Shuttle commanders. His words stung my eyes with tears.

“As Americans, we endeavor to build a better life than the generation before and we endeavor to be a united nation. In these efforts we are often tested. It is in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore. We must not stop.”

Tonight I will watch orbiter Atlantis OV-104 roll out from the Vehicle Assembly Building on her final trip to Launch Pad 39a for her (targeted) July 8 launch. In the wee hours of Wednesday morning (02:35 to be exact) I will watch as Endeavour returns to Earth, ending a 25-mission, 19-year career. I watched her first launch. I will watch her final landing. When I hear Commander Kelly say “Houston, Endeavour. For the final time…wheels stop…” I will cry, as if I’ve lost something important. I have. I believe we all have.

You still have a chance to be a part of this. If weather and technology allow, on July 8th orbiter Atlantis will carry the four astronauts of STS-135 on the final launch of the Space Shuttle program. Do not let this opportunity pass without notice. Tell your children. Tell everyone you know. Watch her launch. Watch her land. Make damn sure you can tell your grand-children that you remember where you were when the Space Shuttle Program died.

Just as I did in December of 1972, I will witness the end of an era. Except this time, there is no bright star on the horizon.

Happy retirement, Discovery. Fair winds and following seas, Endeavour. Godspeed, Atlantis. Thanks for the memories. What a great ride.

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