08 July 2011

The Final Mission: Godspeed Atlantis

Turning on the TV in my hotel room this morning I flipped through the channels until I saw Anderson Cooper reporting on the final mission of Space Shuttle Atlantis. Seeing the shots of Kennedy Space Center and the people waiting at Space View Park, all I could think was “home!”

While I listened to the usual pre-launch commentary and watched the familiar sites as the final seconds ticked down (including that suspenseful hold at 31 seconds) I flashed back to the dozens and dozens of launches I have seen in my life. I’ve watched from the Cape, I’ve watched from the beach at night, I’ve watched from the roof of my church, but most of the time, I just walked out of my front door and watched from the street in front of my house. 135 shuttle missions and I’ve seen a lot of those launches, but no matter how many you see, it just never gets old. Seeing the fire, feeling the rumble, watching the shuttle shrink to a tiny point in the sky, it’s just impressive every time. And for whatever reason, it always fills me with a remarkable sense of pride.

I was probably one of the only people upset when NASA extended the shuttle program by a few months, and it was for entirely selfish reasons. Had the program ended when originally scheduled I would have been there in FL, or at least in the states, to see it and celebrate it. In a lot of ways it feels like I grew up in the shadow of the shuttle, and it just doesn’t seem right that I’m not there for this last historic launch. I know I didn’t grow up in Titusville, my parents didn’t work for NASA, and I wasn’t planning a career in the space industry (at least not recently). But living in Houston and then Daytona, I spent my formative years in places where NASA, shuttles, astronauts, and sonic booms were part of regular life. I also grew up in the 90s, the golden age of space shuttle flights, if you ask me. Like most kids, I was fascinated by space. I toured Kennedy Space Center, had glow in the dark stars and planets all over my ceiling, and begged my parents to send me to Space Camp. And the space program was pervasive back then. Nickelodeon game shows had space-related prizes, we did a unit on space exploration almost every year in school (which usually included eating that awful freeze-dried ice cream, and even the pods in my elementary school were named after space shuttles. In my 4th grade class photo I’m even wearing an Atlantis t-shirt, if I remember correctly.  (No, it wasn’t cool. Go ahead and judge me.)

The space program has always been a part of life. So today, even though I could only watch on CNN from a tiny hotel room in Peru, as the boosters spewed fire and the shuttle left earth one final time…I cried.  Yep. Just sat there with tears running down my face. I hadn’t expected to be emotional, and who knows why it got to me. Maybe it was just because watching something so familiar had me thinking a lot about home, knowing that my mom and friends were there watching the launch in person. Or maybe just because the reporters had done such a good job of talking up the historicity of this event. Or possibly because it really feels like the end of an era. But most likely, I think, it was just because it feels like saying goodbye to an old friend. The shuttle program was a constant in my life, and a constant in a world without many. Plus, it was just plain awesome! Given the typical pace of technological development, it is bizarre to think that the same vehicles that had been taking men into space for several years before I was even born, are still doing that same job 25 years later. When you think of it that way it seems to make sense that it’s time to move on to something new. But I have so many memories tied to the space program, I just hope this next generation gets to have those too. The space shuttle was always held up as a symbol of the spirit of exploration, and an inspiring reminder of the unlimited possibilities that still exist. I hope today’s kids are still inspired by something so remarkable, that they still dream of being astronauts, and get to know the pride of watching your country do something incredible. Thanks NASA, and godspeed Atlantis. 

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