Feb. 24, 2011, began the end to NASA’s 30-year Space Shuttle program with the launch of the Shuttle Discovery at 4:50 p.m. ET from the Space Center in Florida. This will be the Discovery’s last flight, with only two more shuttle flights remaining for the program. The Endeavour is scheduled to launch on April 19, 2011, and Atlantis is set to launch on June 28, 2011. This will bring to a close a space program that I have been a part of watching my entire life; I will be very sad to see it ending.
The first launch of the Columbia shuttle took place on April 12, 1981, and had the whole world watching as this oversized plane-looking rocket took off into space with its two-man crew. This launch was a success and began the amazing shuttle program. As launches became frequent, the crowds watching became fewer and fewer as it became just an everyday thing.
However, that all changed when NASA launched the “Teacher in Space” program, and we watched as high school teacher Christa McAuliffe trained to be the first civilian in space. The Challenger shuttle was set to launch on Jan. 28, 1986, after being delayed for days by technical problems and weather. I was in high school at the time, and my school, as many others across the country, had televisions running everywhere so we could watch this moment in history. However, the timing of the launch was during a classroom passing period, and to this day, I can still remember the announcement made by our principal when the shuttle exploded only 73 seconds into the flight. This explosion ripped at the heart of America, not just NASA and the Space Program. An American teacher had been lost on that flight, as well as six others, and it reminded us that while this program had become so common, there were still so many risks.
I moved to the Space Coast of Florida in 2002, and was privileged to see my very first shuttle launch of Columbia on Jan. 16, 2003. While I had watched so many launches on television, there was just something so different being able to see it go up in person. Words just can’t even begin to describe the feeling of pride in watching this shuttle disappear into the sky.
The day Columbia was set to land back on the Space Coast, my son had a Cub Scout camping weekend. That day, while we worked on our scout activities, we all waited to see and hear the sonic boom and Columbia return. We waited and waited, but nothing. Given that this was a big scouting event, and the fact that we were on the Space Coast, many of the parents there worked for NASA, and when phones began ringing, we knew something was wrong. It was then, after the phone calls were taken and many parents were required to leave and head into NASA, that we learned of the explosion over Texas upon re-entry.
That Columbia flight and explosion was held close to my heart as being the first flight I had seen live; I felt connected. To this day, I can still see the shuttle taking off and I can still remember exactly where I was when I heard the news of the explosion.
I am sad to see the end of this shuttle program, as it has been a big part of my life. It is the end of an amazing history in the exploration of space. This was a program that through the years brought Americans together, be it in accomplishment or tragedy. I don’t think, for me, it will fully sink in until that last flight of Atlantis, and to be honest, I will probably shed a tear to see the program come to an end.