On July 8th, 2011, 10:26:46 am Central Time, I watched the end of an era. Somehow, I had managed to miss out on the news that the Shuttle program was coming to an end. Maybe my mind had been other places at the time, but I made sure to watch this launch, because it would be the last one I would get to see, even on TV. I felt sad that I would not get to see a shuttle launch in person, as I had wished to do since I was a child, but this was good enough.
The calls came, just as I had known them since I was a child. “10, 9, 8, 7, go for main engine start!” Watching the RS-25 engines ignite, as well as hearing them, is one of those magic moments to me than thankfully I can now experience any time I wish via YouTube. The look to the exhaust as they powered up to 104% rated thrust is something you need to look at if you haven’t already.
“5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and liftoff! The final liftoff of Atlantis. On the shoulders of the Space Shuttle, America will continue the dream!” To the average watcher that’s all there was. To me, knowing the vehicle as I did, I knew deep down, as much as I could for a fan of things, what was going on. The 4 GPC’s determining if the orbiter was go for flight, ground crews in launch and mission controls judging every variable on the vehicle, the 4 person flight crew paying attention to any and all variables as the orbiter lifted off the pad; the moment of launch commit when the Solid Rocket Boosters, the most powerful single rockets ever built, were ignited. You can’t stop a solid rocket from burning (not easily, anyway) so once they were fired, that was it, the orbiter was destined to fly, and fly she did. Atlantis made it’s last leap into orbit perfectly, conducting its mission as it had time and time again, since 1985, and on July 21st she came home to a textbook landing.
It was a glorious end to the Shuttle program, and what made it all the more wonderful to me was that it was my favorite orbiter, Atlantis, making the journey. She made her first flight in 1985, the same year I was born, and was also the shuttle that made most of the Shuttle-Mir program flights.I’ve always felt a stronger care for that orbiter than any other (save for maybe Challenger) and for her to be the last to fly was just perfect to me.
It’s interesting to think that STS-135 wasn’t even supposed to happen. The Shuttle program was slated to end when the International Space Station was complete, and the last flight of Atlantis was to be STS-132, with Discovery ending it’s time with STS-133, and Endeavour, the youngest orbiter, finishing out the Shuttle program with STS-134.
President Obama signed an order which, regardless of funding, would make STS-135 happen, and with that, Atlantis the last orbiter to fly, to make one final resupply mission to the Station, as well as conduct a few special tasks while up there, extending the program one extra mission beyond what it was slated to end with under the Bush plan for the end of the Shuttle Program.
That extra mission proved to be, thankfully, the last chance I would get to see something I’ve adored my entire life – the launch of the Space Shuttle. I still remember the excitement of countdown, the joy of seeing the engines fire, the wait as it climbed into orbit, waiting for Main Engine Cutoff, and then watching that bright orange tank be dumped off to burn up in the atmosphere, all while that beautiful black and white orbiter continued to the ISS.
I go back often and watch old shuttle launches. There is even a video on YouTube titled “Shuttle Main Engine Tribute” that I will watch just to hear and see the engines start up. I will always love the Shuttles for what they were but there is a time and a place for everything. The Space Shuttle design was dangerous, and expensive. Our future plans, if they go correctly, should be a step in the right direction, and maybe if funding increases, we will be able to bring back the kind of space program we had in the 1960’s and early 70’s, when the Shuttle was conceived, and get back our chance for the space-filled future we all thought we would be in by now.
Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour: 5 orbiters, thousands of stories, 2 tragedies, 30 years of history and change. The 3 remaining orbiters reside in museums now, but maybe one day, another generation of unique craft similar to them will fly again, and a new generation will grow up with familiar vehicles flying to and from space on a routine basis.
For now, baby steps as we try to get back to where we should have been.
Of note, as always, this post was published at the exact moment that Atlantis launched 5 years ago. You can read more information below. Also fun to note, the countdown of STS-135 is my phones ringtone. Yeah, I’m odd like that.