Leaping Above The Sky One Last Time

By Keith Cowing
July 8, 2011
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Keith Cowing: After a heart-stopping pause at T-31 seconds, Space Shuttle Atlantis left Earth and leapt above the sky this morning. This is the last time a space shuttle will ever do this – and everyone in attendance at the launch site knew it.

Up until a short time before launch gloomy weather forecasts had left a sense of doubt among all who gathered here at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Half an hour or so before the scheduled launch time the weather suddenly started to improve – and with it, the crowd’s expectations.

I am not going to write about all the geeky stuff. Everyone else is doing that.

For me this was one of life’s circles completing itself. I stood in almost the same exact location 30 years ago for the launch of STS-1. At the time I worked at Rockwell International and stood inside of Atlantis and Discovery while they were being built and held pieces of what would one day become Endeavour in my hands.

I took time off from my day job to travel to Florida as Governor Jerry Brown’s advance man – a job I had held during his 1980 presidential campaign. Long story short, our traveling troupe included George Lucas, Stephen Speilberg, Nichelle Nichols and others. James Michener stood next to me as the launch occurred. My feet never touched the ground. I was 26 and the entire experience was utterly surreal and etched into my memory.

In the ensuing years payloads I would work on and friends that I had come to know would fly on these amazing machines. A Moon rock I carried to Nepal was carried by a shuttle-riding friend to the summit of Mt. Everest and then sent into orbit – on a shuttle – with a piece of Everest – to reside on the ISS. I also find myself on the board of Directors of the Challenger Center, founded by the families of the crew of Space Shuttle Challenger.

The Space Shuttle has played a vibrant, personal – and yes, emotional role in my life. My particular story may be unique but it is not at all uncommon. Many thousands of people have a similar emotional attachment – one that is hard to deal with as this last trip unfolds. This is a loss to many thousands of people.

This morning I awoke as I have done dozens of times over the past 30 years: in a Florida hotel room with NASA TV on showing a shuttle on the pad. Just as the announcer noted that NASA had decided to proceed with tanking my phone started making noises alerting me to messages telling me the same thing.

I left early – 3:00 am – so as to be on site with total assurance that I would not get stuck in traffic. As I have done in the past, I turned on AM radio to listen to local folks talking about the launch. I could not find a lot of commentary this early in the morning but a few stations made mention of the launch.

As has been the case in innumerable stories of late the commentary covered a mixture of pride and loss – pride in what the shuttle represents and loss in terms of jobs and economic growth. Along the way signs flashed wishing “Godspeed” and “Good Luck” to the crew of Atlantis – another local tradition.

Once I was inside the gate I made that long 5 mile ride with the VAB looming in the distance. To my right Atlantis was lit up in a way that reflected and bounced up through the night sky. As is always the case, the VAB just sat on the horizon as I sped towards it. Only when I got within a mile or so did it start to grow in size.

Each time you make this drive the VAB’s commanding presence forces you to pay attention to it – and to the magical place you are approaching. And you think about all of the previous times you have made this drive. With the exception of the missing Saturn V and the old bleachers and the addition of some buildings, this place has changed little in the past three decades.

The real change is in the people who are here and those who no longer are. This has been a slow motion change. NASA’s human spaceflight family is now confronted with some sudden, high speed change. Like a lot of people, many at NASA do not like change – not one bit.

A few weeks ago Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach made a pointed farewell address to his staff. He did not mince words. I asked him about this in a press conference. He is a no nonsense sort of guy who does his job and does it well. He replied simply that he said it, that it was mean to be private and that “people appreciated it”. While I do not agree with the substance of what he said, I told him after the press conference that if my boss at NASA had stood up in a similar situation and said these things that I’d “be damn proud of them” for doing so. Having gone through a emotional shutdown myself – the Space Station Freedom program, I have seen this movie before.

This last launch closes an era in America’s human spaceflight program. With some uncertainty in where NASA wants to send humans next, everyone interprets this event differently. Those who wanted NASA to build a large government-led program to return to the Moon (Constellation) to pick up where the shuttle program left off in terms of access to space, see the cancellation of Constellation and the end of the shuttle program as a harbinger of gloomy days ahead. Those who see the flowering of commercial space as a newer, more flexible, and more economic way to access space routinely, see this as simply a paradigm shift.

No two people seem to have exactly the same take. But everyone senses that this is an important moment in NASA’s history.

I will wager that prior to today’s launch, 90 percent – or more – of the people involved in NASA’s human space flight program had not fully processed the blunt reality of what the end of shuttle operations really means. Between today and wheel stop in 12-13 day’s time it will start to settle in.

People are being laid off. Others are retiring. Others will show up for work weeks or months from now, sense a sea change, and suddenly decide to depart. When all is said and done the agency will look much different. And I will wager that NASA itself has yet to grasp what this will means in terms of what it wants to do – and what it is able to do.

The last time such a watershed shift in people and direction happened was when Apollo (and Skylab) came to an end. NASA struggled then and it will struggle now.

When I stood in this place 30 years ago the entire shuttle program laid ahead of us. In a matter of days, it will all lie behind us. Echoes of the shuttle program may well continue in the form of NASA’s new heavy launch vehicle, buildings, launch pads, and culture. But the orbiters themselves will soon sit in museums.

The retirement of the Space Shuttle can be a punch in the stomach or a kick in the butt for NASA. Which outcome will prevail is uncertain. Much of what NASA is directed to do next is outside of NASA’s direct control. However, how its people and extended family respond to these changes and challenges is totally under their control.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.