Last Chance Launch: Why I Had To See The Final Shuttle Go

More than a million people were expected in the area around the Kennedy Space Center to watch the launch. Many arrived before sunrise to claim the best seats. i i

hide captionMore than a million people were expected in the area around the Kennedy Space Center to watch the launch. Many arrived before sunrise to claim the best seats.

Scott Cameron/NPR
More than a million people were expected in the area around the Kennedy Space Center to watch the launch. Many arrived before sunrise to claim the best seats.

More than a million people were expected in the area around the Kennedy Space Center to watch the launch. Many arrived before sunrise to claim the best seats.

Scott Cameron/NPR

Space shuttle Atlantis touched down in the pre-dawn darkness at the Kennedy Space Center Thursday morning. Capt. Christopher Ferguson, commander of Atlantis, closed out NASA's final shuttle mission with the words: "Mission complete, Houston. After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle has earned its place in history, and it's come to a final stop."

America's shuttle era is over, and two weeks ago I jumped at the chance to catch a glimpse of history.

On July 8th, as Atlantis lifted off for the last time, I propped my 3-year-old son on my shoulders at the Kennedy Space Center. As much as my wife and I told ourselves we wanted him to experience a shuttle launch, we didn't drive nearly 1,000 miles and take on gobs of debt for his benefit alone. As the shuttle faded into the clouds and we finally exhaled, I realized that the trip was all about me.

Until that morning, my most vivid memory of the U.S. space program was a tragedy.

When space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after launch, I was huddled with hundreds of classmates in the halls of our school in Chicago. To honor the first teacher in space in January 1986, NASA made a live feed available to schools across the country. As flames overtook the external fuel tank and the 7-member crew vanished, teachers rushed to turn off the TVs and corral us back into our classrooms. Little was said by teachers. Even less was understood by most students.

Space shuttle Atlantis lifted off for the last time on Friday July 8, 2011. It landed nearly two weeks later, bringing to an end Nasa's 30 year space shuttle program. i i

hide captionSpace shuttle Atlantis lifted off for the last time on Friday July 8, 2011. It landed nearly two weeks later, bringing to an end Nasa's 30 year space shuttle program.

Scott Cameron/NPR
Space shuttle Atlantis lifted off for the last time on Friday July 8, 2011. It landed nearly two weeks later, bringing to an end Nasa's 30 year space shuttle program.

Space shuttle Atlantis lifted off for the last time on Friday July 8, 2011. It landed nearly two weeks later, bringing to an end Nasa's 30 year space shuttle program.

Scott Cameron/NPR

Twenty-five years later, I set out to banish the ghosts of Challenger.

And it wasn't supposed to happen. The chance of launch that Friday morning stood at 30% as we settled into the bus, just after 4am. A million people were expected in the area to watch the launch, but lightning struck the launchpad the previous day and meteorologists predicted more low clouds and storms. Another challenge: NASA had to meet a slim 10-minute launch window or reschedule.

When mission control gave the final "go for launch," the crowd roared in support. My son chanted, "blast-off rocket ship," cameras clicked on, people jumped to their feet and eyes focused on the large TV screen set up on the lawn of the viewing area. We couldn't see the launchpad from the visitors center. The shuttle would emerge above the tree line a few seconds after lift-off.

Less than one minute before the launch window closed, Atlantis fired its engines, twitched slightly and pulled slowly away from the launchpad. The TV screen in front of us filled with smoke, and the crowd cheered politely. When Atlantis burst into full view in the cloudy sky, the space center erupted.

Atlantis quickly vanished into the clouds, leaving behind a massive column of thick smoke, and an audience in awe.

hide captionAtlantis quickly vanished into the clouds, leaving behind a massive column of thick smoke, and an audience in awe.

Scott Cameron/NPR

An intense streak of fire jumped from behind the trees, flickering in and out of the clouds. In its wake, a massive, sculpted column of smoke, impossibly thick, momentarily tethered Earth and space.

Twenty-five years after Challenger, my most vivid memory of the shuttle program is also one of its last.

I'm a child of the 70's. Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon was the stuff of history books, grainy documentaries and our parents' fading memories. We were part of the shuttle generation — raised on images of exciting but routine launches and dramatic touch downs. Scientists topped a massive explosive device with a crew of astronauts and repeatedly launched them beyond the reach of the Earth's atmosphere. This was as close as we'd come to the star ships and cruisers of Star Trek or Star Wars (there's a reason the first shuttle was named Enterprise). Space became a destination, not just a dream.

The space shuttle program launched with a ground-shaking roar thirty years ago. On Thursday morning, it ended with a whisper as Atlantis gently touched down in Florida. A huge question mark now hangs over the future of the U.S. space program. President Obama set his sights on deep space and Mars, but budgets are tight. NASA currently lacks any capability to send humans into space. U.S. astronauts must now hitch a ride with the Russians. Commercial space companies promise to fill the shuttle void in coming years. Still, something feels lost.

Storer Rowley argued Thursday in the Chicago Tribune:

English poet Robert Browning wrote that a person's "reach should exceed his grasp." That's always been the story of America, from our pioneers to our astronauts.
Exploration is in our DNA. We have been reaching for the stars for more than half a century in space-faring alone, limited only by our collective imagination, the dangers of highly experimental space missions and the constraints of earthbound budgets.
We are a species that needs to explore, to push the limits, to risk life and limb, at times, because that is our nature. To have U.S. astronauts grounded indefinitely from rocketing aloft from U.S. soil, or even for an extended hiatus without a clear end, is not the kind of American vision and leadership that lifted us to the Sea of Tranquility on the moon.

On the bus to the Kennedy Space Center before the final launch, with little hope of NASA giving the green light, a woman two seats up and across the aisle comforted her pre-teen daughter: "This is one of those times when you just move ahead, and hope for the best."

As the remaining shuttles head for their final resting places in museums, that may be all fans of the U.S. manned space program can do.

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