Columbia, Challenger, Endeavor, Discovery, Atlantis and me.

22 07 2011

Though I thought I was kind of over getting emotional about big world events, I surprised even myself at how emotional I got as I watched the space shuttle Atlantis return to earth for the last time yesterday morning.

It was still night Florida – an hour before sunrise. A shadow in the dark, the workhorse of the U.S. space program for the past 30 years arrived back on earth as she had left it 12 days ago, and as 134 shuttle flights before her began and ended: with dignity and grace and mystery.

Isn't she beautiful?

Atlantis’ touchdown was the last shuttle landing, ever. And it was like saying goodbye to a friend I grew up with, who was just kind of always around, at some times closer than at others, but always somewhere near. You know… just… there.

I can’t think of a single person I have been friends with that long.

Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavor and Atlantis and I grew up together, and we experienced the ups and downs of every lifetime. We celebrated successes together – the awe-inspiring successes, and mourned the failures – the lives and confidence lost. And then we celebrated new successes – the confidence and spirit restored.

I always wanted to see a launch live and in person, but never had the opportunity. A few months ago I came closer than ever, but in the end it just didn’t work out.

The space program was and still is something to believe in and be proud of, at least for those of us whose inclination is aeronautical rather than terrestrial or aquatic. Something fantastic and fantasy-like, a way to also escape these bonds of mental gravity, while everything and everyone else is mired in reality here on earth.

In April 1981 as Columbia blasted off, I sat in my family’s basement, to where the television had been banned. I planned my career as an astronaut – a child with big dreams.

In July 2011 as Atlantis lands, I sit in an office at a desk in front of a computer, with a live-stream direct broadcast open in a window on the left hand side of my screen. I am an adult in my second career, neither of which have had even the slightest thing to do with astronauts.

And though this is an end, it should be another moment of celebration rather than mourning. The shuttles are done flying but they are far from on their way to being forgotten. They will be on display at museums across the country and will continue to feed the dream of space exploration.

So yesterday I’m glad I watched history happen, even if only virtually, and from so far away.

At 05:56 Eastern Daylight Time Atlantis glides out of the inky black into view. Main gear touchdown, chute, rotate nose gear, touchdown, roll out, full stop. As the sun rises over Florida, the shuttle Atlantis, resting on the tarmac, takes on form and color.

Job well done, America. Thanks for 30 years of friendship and inspiration.

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