The emotions of the space shuttle’s final launch

Posted by Mike Reynolds
on Monday, July 11, 2011

With STS-135 underway and Atlantis safely in orbit, I began to personally reflect on what this last-of-an-era launch and mission means to me as well as to the leader in space exploration: the United States of America.

Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off July 8 for the 135th and final launch of the Space Shuttle Program. // All photos by Mike Reynolds
I have been fortunate enough to be present for some 65 space shuttle launches from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Most were from the press site, while a few were from the NASA Causeway site when I used to teach high school and bring students down for launches.

Those 65 launches included many milestones: STS-1, the first shuttle launch on April 12, 1981; STS-7, with Mission Specialist Sally Ride — the first American female in space; STS-8, the first night launch and first launch of an African American — Mission Specialist Guy Bluford; the Hubble Space Telescope launch in 1990; and many, many others. After seeing the Challenger accident, I stood there and held my breath for the launch of space shuttle Discovery as Rick Hauck and his crew flew the shuttle for the return-to-flight launch after that tragedy.

As a NASA teacher-in-space finalist, I got to know most of Challenger’s final crew. I remember how serious Dick Scobee and Mike Smith were. Judy Resnick was so outgoing and what I have described as “alive” with spirit and an enjoyment of what she was doing. And, of course, there was teacher Christa McAuliffe, who carried the dreams of not only a group of teachers but of many children around the world with her. It is hard for me to believe that the Challenger accident was more than 25 years ago, on January 28, 1986.

The solid rocket boosters’ smoke trail off the launch pad is all that remains shortly after liftoff. The dark thick line where the smoke trail goes into the clouds is the shadow of the continued trail. The author calls this image “The Ghost of the Shuttle Era.”
After the Challenger tragedy unfolded and everyone began picking up the pieces, I became close friends with Greg Jarvis’ father Bruce and his stepmother Ellen. They dedicated themselves to personally placing small business cards on the windshields of cars that proudly displayed Florida’s new Challenger automobile tag. As Bruce would talk about his son and his dreams for flying as an engineer for Hughes aboard Challenger’s last mission, I gained a keen insight into the personal part of spaceflight and the Challenger tragedy.

I have watched the public interest in space wane in the years following the initial shuttle launches and excitement surrounding this most-unusual flying machine: a combination rocket-spacecraft-cargo carrier-airplane/glider. A testament to the shuttle’s lasting triumphs was the number of people — many ordinary folk like you and me — who came to Florida’s Space Coast to see this final shuttle launch. Maybe the government support of U. S. human space exploration is at an end, but certainly not the support of many of its citizens.

A post-launch picture: the massive Vehicle Assemble Building (where the mighty Saturn V Moon rockets and the space shuttles were assembled and readied for launch), the Launch Umbilical Tower for the now-cancelled Ares I, and the historic — and now silent — countdown clock.
I sat down by my equipment after Atlantis had blasted through the cloud ceiling. A deep sigh … and a realization that an era in human exploration was coming to a close, but not without its tragedies. Hail Columbia and Challenger and their brave crews. Goodbye Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis … and thanks!

Related blogs:
T-31 seconds and holding ... and counting! by Contributing Editor Mike Reynolds

T-2 hours and counting... by Contributing Editor Mike Reynolds

T-1 day ... and raining! by Contributing Editor Mike Reynolds

Celebrating the space shuttle by Copy Editor Karri Ferron


The author at about T+10 minutes July 8 “reflecting” on the last space shuttle launch.


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