It was 33 years in the making. It's been a long journey. So many emotions swirled in my head as I drove my family from Huntsville, AL to Kennedy Space Center for the last space shuttle launch, STS-135. My thoughts took me back to 1981 when I was working 12-hour days, 7 days a week when STS-1 launched from Kennedy Space Center. We had worked long hours to ensure the first shuttle flight would be successful. I remembered how excited I was when STS-1 launched. I was part of the team that helped launch the first vehicle and now 33 years and 135 missions later, I was about to witness the end of an era. I guess you could say I have come full circle.
At that time, I had no idea how long the Space Shuttle program would last. We had concerns after Challenger and spent the next 33 months recovering from that accident and then another 29 months after the Columbia accident for a total downtime of five years. But we knew we would recover and that we would fly again. And we did. However, this last flight, STS-135, is forever. I now have forever facing me. It is a bittersweet feeling.
I had also lined up a fantastic opportunity for a photo op on the pad the day prior to launch. I would also be onsite to help mount the infrared (IR) NASA camera. We left Huntsville a day early to make sure that everything would play out smoothly. I secured my pass for the pad and everything went according to plan. While I was working on the pad and getting my photo op for my upcoming book Remove Before Flight, my family enjoyed an afternoon at the Kennedy Space Center museum. My son, Christian, is a rock collector so I made sure to gather several crushed rocks from the crawler's path as a memento.
I have always understood the enormity and the complexity of the space shuttle program, but standing there, next to Atlantis, really evoked a powerful sense of what the shuttle has meant to our country. It was surreal as the light filtered through the stack. It was almost like standing in front of the Statue of Liberty and realizing what that symbol means to so many people. At that moment, I felt a deep sense of pride as an American. The shuttle program, for me, has always been about the people not the hardware because it is the people who enable it to launch.
Since we were staying with my sister, Lori, in Orlando we had to make a decision whether to drive back to Orlando the night prior to launch and return early in the morning or stay local and beat the crowds that were expected. The weather that evening was also a concern. Rain and thunderstorms were expected throughout the night. We decided to 'hang out' in Titusville and stick with our game plan knowing the launch could be scrubbed at any moment. McDonald's is not typically our favorite eatery but they certainly came through for us that night as they were the only place that was open 24 hours and had Wi-Fi! We were able to monitor the launch status on our laptop throughout the night. As it turned out, there were several other families doing the exact same thing.
As soon as we saw day break over the coast, we set out for our coveted spot on the causeway and to wait for the countdown to begin. The weather remained iffy due to the possibility of strengthening cloud formations. We met a lot of interesting people that morning and heard many amazing shuttle stories. I had my C.F. Martin guitar and a shuttle model in my vehicle so I was able to share those as well. There was one particular individual who was very curious to see my art piece. I didn't recognize him at the time but knew he looked familiar. It turned out to be Don Petit who spent many months on the International Space Station.
The weather was 'go' then 'no go' throughout the morning. We watched in amazement as the clouds began to separate and disappear as it came closer and closer to the launch window. In spite of the weather concerns, we heard the final 'go' and the countdown continued. All technical systems were a 'go' but held at 31 seconds for a camera placement issue. My heart nearly jumped out of my chest. Surely it wasn't the camera I helped set up that caused the countdown to stop! Alas, it was not!!
It was a spectacular lift off. The crowd was on their feet cheering. At the same time, it was a bittersweet moment for most everyone witnessing the launch of Atlantis.
Somehow I knew my return to work would be different. I appreciate the support of my colleagues and this last flight won't dampen my passion. I will forever be a Space Shuttle model builder and a space memorabilia collector. The final STS-135 pin has now been mounted on the 30-Year Shuttle Tribute display and is ready for signatures when the STS-135 crew visits MFSC in the near future. I have gone the full circle. The Shuttle Program may be over but the memories and passion live on!