Friday, May 22, 2020

Goodbye Space Shuttles, You Will Be Missed

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex Atlantis Exhibit, June 22, 2013

Originally posted on July 8, 2011 in my personal journal, with minor edits.

On Tuesday morning, I was phone interviewed by a reporter from Florida Today (same parent company as USA Today) doing a story on young people who have been inspired and influenced by the space shuttle program. I've gotten two other similar requests for interviews, but I had to turn them down because they're TV and sadly, I am not in Florida this week. At age 27, the Space Transportation System (STS, the space shuttle program) is all I've ever known of NASA human spaceflight. I've admired the Apollo V rocket, but I've never seen it in action with my own eyes, nor have I seen a Russian Soyuz rocket. My fondest memories of my first Space Camp days in the middle school Space Academy program were of participating in mock space shuttle missions to the International Space Station. Our camp teams were gather under Huntsville's test simulator the Space Shuttle Pathfinder and I would stare up at it in awe, wishing I could climb inside.

My parents took me to see the a space shuttle launch at some point in the 80s. We were on a trip to Disney World and drove to the Cape to see the launch, but it was scrubbed. I don't remember this at all, but had it launched, it probably would have made a lasting impression with me. It was around that same time, third grade, when I wrote a short story for school about being an astronaut and going to the Moon.

My first space shuttle launch experience didn't occur until my freshman year of college when I moved to the Space Coast. My first one was STS-112 Atlantis in October 2002, seen with a classmate along the side of a highway somewhere near Kennedy Space Center. I joined the student newspaper that semester and got the amazing opportunity to see STS-113 Endeavour from the KSC press site in November. That was a night launch, scrubbed the first night, but so worth returning! Night launches, appearing as artificial sunrise, are my favorite. Even better, I could share the experience with friends.

STS-112 launch, October 7, 2002. Credit: me
STS-113 launch, November 24, 2002. Credit: me

The launch of STS-107 Columbia I saw from my car near campus in January 2003. I don't know why I didn't take the time to see it closer. I think that I took launches for granted at that point. This attitude was corrected on the morning of February 1, 2003, when I got the terrible news. My undergrad alma mater is very close to Kennedy Space Center, so the university as a whole was affected greatly. I was honored to meet some of the late astronauts' families during a dedication ceremony of the brand new Columbia Village dorms, seven buildings named for the seven astronauts, where I lived my sophomore year.

As the new editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, I had the privilege of attending a press tour of the Orbital Processing Facility 1 where I got to stand very close to and under Atlantis. I've since had a number of these kinds of tours through NASA Academy and KSC Family Days, but the first one will always have a special place in my heart. Especially because on that tour I was “banned from NASA for life,” but that's a different story.

Me under Atlantis at KSC, September 2003

The Columbia accident delayed the return of space shuttle launches for years, but thanks to NASA Academy, I was able to visit Florida to see the return-to-flight STS-114 Discovery launch from the KSC Banana Creek VIP bleachers in July 2005. That was memorable especially because of the location, sitting in bleachers not far from First Lady Laura Bush with several secret service agents around.

NASA Academy at MSFC cohort in front of Discovery, July 2005. I'm in the red shirt.
STS-114 launch, July 26, 2005. Credit: me
Again because of foam problems, launches were long delayed after that, but again because of NASA Academy I was able to see the second Discovery return-to-flight on July 4, 2006. In my limited experience, the top of a mobile launch platform set up next to the Vehicle Assembly Building was the best place I've ever seen a launch from, very close to the pad and eyesight over the tree-line.

STS-121 launch, July 4, 2006. Credit: me
Living in Alabama for three and a half years put a damper on my in-person space shuttle viewing. It wasn't until I moved back to central Florida a year and a half ago that I was able to experience the wonder with my own eyes again. The first launch I saw after moving back was STS-130 Endeavour in February 2010. Unfortunately, my camera was locked in my car and I did not feel like fetching it, so all I have is the memory. I did get to see Endeavour close up before launch, which was cool. For STS-132 Atlantis in May, I spent hours waiting at Space View Park to catch a glimpse; not the best spot, but still beautiful.

Me in front of Endeavour, January 23, 2010
STS-132 launch, May 14, 2010. Credit: me
Thanks to a friend, I saw STS-133 Discovery launch from the Astronaut Hall of Fame in February of this year. Electrical lines got in the way of a perfect view, but it was still neat to see it from a different location.

Discovery on the pad, September 25, 2010. Credit: me
STS-133 launch, February 24, 2011. Credit: me
I don't know how many people have seen a space shuttle cake launch, but thanks to a friend, I got an excellent view of the one and only Cake Boss space shuttle cake fire up and ascend (with the help of pyrotechnics and a mechanical structure) at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in April.

Space Shuttle Program 30th Anniversary Celebration, April 12, 2011. Credit: me
May's STS-134 Endeavour launch I attempted to see from Orlando so I wouldn't risk missing my flight later that day. Unfortunately, cloud cover made that impossible, but I tried. An unfortunate conflict in scheduling holds me here in Pennsylvania visiting family while the very last space shuttle launch, STS-135 Atlantis, lifted off beautifully this morning. I cried, of course. I pray and cry watching every space shuttle launch. It's so beautiful, so powerful, so emotional. Godspeed, Atlantis, and please come home safely.

News coverage has been fantastic. I love the positive attention that NASA is getting, and I'm pleased that the news media is trying to educated the general public about the space industry. However, I'm dismayed by all of the remarks about "the end of NASA" or "the end of the space program." Neither is true. NASA will go on, the space program will go on, human space exploration will go on.

Poor leadership has caused a gap in NASA human space transportation. This will be a very hard transition over the next few years, especially hard for those who will lose or have lost their jobs. But NASA's next space vehicle is in the works, and in the meantime, private space companies are developing their own rockets and spaceplanes to take crew and cargo into suborbital and orbital space.

As much as I love the space shuttle program, I agree with the decision to retire it and move on. I want humankind to return to exploring the solar system. I want us to eventually get to the point where we can live, work, and make money in space and on other planetary bodies. I believe that this is essential, and I will do everything in my power to do my part to make that happen.

Pursuing my astronaut dreams at KSC, September 25, 2010

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