More Shuttle Thoughts

There are a Million “End of Shuttle” Stories

The launch of Atlantis in fisheye format. Copyright 2011 Loch Ness Productions. Taken by Mark C. Petersen.

Now that we’re back from witnessing the launch of space shuttle Atlantis for the last time, ending a 30-year-long era of NASA’s space exploration history, I’ve got a bit more time to stooge around the Web and read other people’s thoughts about this experience.  There are millions of words written about this time in space exploration history across the blog-o-sphere, and most are heartfelt and profoundly moving. A few entries are sardonic, sarcastic, and tragically hip, as if it’s cool to be disdainful of something that means a lot to many Americans (and, as far as I can tell, impresses the heck out of many people in other countries, too).

One of my jobs at the launch was to cover the event for Sky & Telescope and also for this story for Yahoo News. My story for Yahoo was picked up immediately, while the work I did for S&T has not yet appeared but will likely be published soon. I also have a couple of other things to create (a short video), and another blog entry wherein I muse further about the socio-political aspects of this program’s end.

As I pondered what to write for these venues, I did a lot of sifting through shuttle archives and old stories (and my previous entry talks about some of the cool facts I uncovered).  It was an interesting time sitting in the press annex at the Kennedy Space Center, trying to marshal my thoughts after the launch.

The whole experience was more than the launch. For us, it began when Atlantis rolled out from the orbiter processing facility in May and over to the VAB for her final preparations. That was when it really came home to me that this program was not just the hardware and the missions. It was the people. The technical staff who worked on the orbiters, the crew support staff, the PIO folk… they’re all people… with homes and kids and hobbies and lives that are just like most other peoples’ lives. Except that they work here on Earth in the space exploration realm.  So, just as I have a sort of emotional connect to the shuttle program (and to space exploration and astronomy in general), so do they.  Not just because they have jobs, but because they do their jobs well. And they love their jobs.  With that in mind, I was charmed and got something in my eye when I watched the video below.

Watch that video again. Notice the pride, mixed with what has to be sadness, on their faces. These people cared about the jobs they did (I suspect many of them will be part of the layoffs coming in the next few weeks as NASA’s contractors shrink their work forces in response to the shuttle program winding down and the short-sighted and partisan Congressional  attempts to gut the space program).

The people in that video are proud of what they did for NASA and their employers.  And proud of the country they live in that enabled the shuttle program to fly. (For all the sardonic hipsters who are just too cool to appreciate space, this is for you: don’t look at those faces and tell ME that a space program means nothing.)

For us, the launch experience itself included a day or two of activities before the actual liftoff. For one thing, we (as press) were allowed to go out to the launch pad (within a few hundred feet) and see the orbiter and her fuel tanks and boosters after the Rotating Service Structure had rolled away.  It was wet, hot, muggy, and rainy — but there we were out there, setting up our tripods and cameras and taking visuals of this last-of-her-kind NASA mission hardware.

There were press briefings to attend, along with other tours and interviews with astronauts (if we wanted them), and a chance to meet officials from NASA and its contractors.  By late in the day before launch, many of us opted to go get some rest, because we had to be back at the site very very early the next morning to beat the traffic of more than a million people who were also headed out to see the launch from various causeways and viewing sites open to the public.

We arrived back at KSC at 3:30 a.m., set up our camera tripods, secured them against rain and wind, and then headed back to our car to catch a little nap.  We were up again by 7 a.m. or so, and by then the site was buzzing with activity from press, Tweetup attendees, and other assorted visitors.  The whop-whop-whop of the escort chopper that followed the astronauts out to the pad in their little silver van was what woke us up.  We grabbed a little breakfast, freshened up, and then waited out the hours til launch.

It was quite an experience and one that we will treasure.  It is sad to see the shuttles go. I am of mixed feelings about it, and that’s something I’ll explore in another blog entry. But, I’m glad we went, and I’m glad I was able to share it with others via my articles.

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