Space Exploration Begins Right Here

With the Folks on the Ground

Atlantis leaving the OPF. Image copyright Carolyn Collins Petersen.

One of the more poignant experiences I had during launch week at the Kennedy Space Center was the chance to watch “orbiter rollover.”  No, it’s not a ground maneuver where the orbiter flips on its back.  It’s really just the transfer of a space shuttle from one building to another. But, in this case, it was a really momentous transfer — the last one for Atlantis.  She was moved from the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF), where she was made ready for flight and had all its payload installed, to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), where it was mated to its solid rocket boosters and external tank. During the move, employees who had worked on the orbiter preps came out and had their pictures taken with Atlantis. At one point,they marched along with her, carrying a banner that said, “We’re Behind You, Atlantis!”

Atlantis leaving the OPF. Image by Carolyn Collins Petersen.

I heard someone say that this was a time of “finals”.  The final launch of Endeavour. The final time Atlantis would leave the OPF.  The final time she would enter the VAB. And, inevitably, the final time Atlantis would launch.

And, it’s also a time of rituals like the little parade we saw. Very human things to do, and entirely understandable.

It was very personal and a wee bit sad to see these employees say goodbye to Atlantis.  And, not just because in some sense they were also saying goodbye to their jobs. It’s also goodbye to a way of life, to a program that has lasted for 30 years, taking people to space routinely.  The people I saw waving goodbye to Atlantis are specialists. They made their living from space exploration, and their salaries paid for food, cars, homes, clothing, schooling, and all the other necessities of life.  Space exploration for the past 30 years — at least with the shuttles — began right here on the ground, with these people who took pride in what they did and are willing to stand behind the work they do on each and every shuttle that goes up.

So, the next time I hear somebody whining and sighing about how all that money gets spent in space, and doesn’t do anybody any good here on the ground, I’m going to show them this picture, and point out this pride, this loving attention that these people paid to their Atlantis.

Teams leading Atlantis to the VAB. Image by Carolyn Collins Petersen. Copyright 2011.

It wasn’t just hardware that our tax dollars bought: it was the expertise of these good and wonderful people who made the shuttles go. And, they spend their salaries right here on the ground, helping us realize some of our dreams of space exploration. To all of them, I (and I think all of us owe them this) say “Thank YOU!”

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