“Having fired the imagination of a generation, a ship like no other, it’s place in history secured, the Space Shuttle pulls into port for the last time, it’s voyage at an end.” – Rob Navias, NASA Announcer
Signaling the end of what was once a new beginning in the United States’ foray into human space flight, the Space Shuttle Atlantis (OV-104) touched down at 5:57 a.m. on Thursday, July 21, 2011 at the Kennedy Space Center following the successful completion of Mission STS-135.
The mission, which began on Friday, July 8, 2011, delivered supplies to the International Space Station, lasted a total of 12 days, 18 hours, 28 minutes, 50 seconds.
On board was a crew of four: Chris Ferguson, commander; Doug Hurley, pilot; Rex Walheim, mission specialist; Sandy Magnus, mission specialist.
This was the final mission of the Space Shuttle Era which began on April 12, 1981 with the maiden voyage of Space Shuttle Columbia. Historically speaking, the final Shuttle mission coincided with another historical milestone: the 42nd anniversary of the July 20, 1969 Apollo 11 lunar landing.
Early Thursday morning I watched the final moments of this incredible 30-year adventure unfold live online via NASA’s live video feed and other robust online resources.
I have always been enthralled with aviation — my grandfather flew a C-47 in World War II and my Dad has privately flown various aircraft, including a Cessna 310 – but space travel captured a special place in my heart.
For me, the Space Shuttle was especially significant. The program began when I was in first grade and during my formative years served as an enduring symbol of education and exploration.
The adventurous essence of the Shuttle program captivated my imagination and symbolized “intelligence in action.” It also exemplified the ideals of teamwork and achievement over seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
In the days before the Internet I excitedly watched televised Shuttle launches with my Dad — with whom I also looked to the night sky on several occasions to watch it streak above us like a shooting star. These were special moments I shared with my Dad, moments that impressed upon me positive memories and feelings.
Years later, I shared a similar moment with my Dad and my sons — Jacob (7) and Max (5) — when we watched “Hubble 3D” in IMAX at the California Science Center. When the movie featured a Shuttle launch sequence my younger son, Max, turned to me with awe and fascination in his eyes. Later in the film, my older son, Jacob, stared excitedly at the screen and asked me how many stars there were in space!
He also earned a Master of Science and then a Doctor of Philosophy in chemical engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara – the school that would later become my undergraduate alma mater.
When Dr. Chiao was selected, I was the editor of my high school newspaper, The San Ramon Valley High School “Wolf Print.” I was invited to meet with Dr. Chiao along with other nearby high school newspaper editors and reporters at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he was working at the time.
He spoke about the Shuttle program and what he anticipated would be his role. Notably, Dr. Chiao flew as a mission specialist on STS-65 (1994), STS-72 (1996), and STS-92 (2000). Dr. Chiao had logged more than 36 days, 12.5 hours in space, including more than 26 EVA hours in four space walks. He was also the Commander of Expedition 10 on the International Space Station (2004-2005). Dr. Chiao left NASA in December 2005.
In April 2003, I attended my first academic conference — the International Academy of Business Disciplines (IABD) — in Orlando, Florida. I leveraged my proximity to the Kennedy Space Center and, driving the Ford Mustang I had rented, traveled from Orlando to the historic spaceport.
While I arrived too late to take a tour of the facility, I explored what I was able to by myself. I also watched an IMAX movie from 1985 I had seen many years before at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum called “The Dream is Alive.”
I also bought some items for my sons, including an orange Astronaut jumpsuit both of my sons enthusiastically wore for a Halloween. Although my visit was brief, being in that historic place was a powerful experience for me.
More recently, I was captivated when, on November 30, 2008, Space Shuttle Endeavour was diverted to the backup landing option at Edwards Air Force Base due to inclement weather in Florida on its return voyage from mission STS-126. I was fortunate to have been able to record the double sonic booms as it passed over Santa Clarita and wrote a blog post featuring an MP3 file of the distinctive sound.
Despite the many incomparable moments of inspiration, however, there were also times of great heartache.
- On the morning of January 28, 1986 I was prepared to give a speech about Christa McAuliffe to my sixth grade class when we learned about Space Shuttle Challenger exploding during launch. I changed my speech to one that explained the circumstances behind the Shuttle’s unfortunate demise.
- On February 1, 2003 — on the day I was planning to tell my family about the impending arrival of my older son, Jacob — I again found myself with a heavy heart when Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon it’s return to earth after a mission.
Despite these tragic times, the Space Shuttle will always be my generation’s inspiration — our Apollo program, our crowning achievement, our wildest dreams realized. The image of that magnificent machine launching like a rocket, orbiting Earth, and then returning as a powerless glider, will forever inspire and excite me.
It saddens me that the Shuttle was discontinued without a replacement ready to go. Now, for the first time in 50 years, the United States will have no launch vehicle. Until a new one can be built, American astronauts will be ferried to the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Commercial space vehicles will also begin operation in the near future.
NASA is planning to build a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle for deep space exploration which is based on the Orion capsule, which was initially developed for cancelled moon-bound trips under the Constellation program. However, the chances of this coming to fruition in less than five years seems slim.
Until NASA initiates a new program, I will celebrate the fact that Space Shuttle Endeavour will soon be on permanent display at the California Science Center. I am thankful to NASA for 30 years of awe-inspiring adventure and exploration. And, lastly, I will forever remain inspired by the many Astronauts — from the Space Shuttle and prior vehicles — who ”slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”