An Era Ends with the Final Orbit of Atlantis

Having fired the imagination of a generation, a ship like no other, it’s place in history secured, the Space Shuttle pulls into port for the last time, it’s voyage at an end.” — Rob Navias, NASA Announcer

STS-135 Mission Patch

As the lyrics to the 1998 Semisonic song “Closing Time” remind us: “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.

On July 21, 2011 what was once a new beginning in human space flight ended at 5:57 a.m when Space Shuttle Atlantis  (OV-104) landed at Kennedy Space Center following the completion of Mission STS-135, signaling the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program.

The mission, which began on Friday, July 8, 2011, delivered supplies to the International Space Station, lasted a total of 12 days, 18 hours, 28 minutes, 50 seconds.

On board was a crew of four: Commander Chris Ferguson,  Pilot Doug Hurley, Mission Specialist Rex Walheim, and Mission Specialist Sandy Magnus.

This was the final mission of the Space Shuttle Era which began on April 12, 1981 with the maiden voyage of Space Shuttle Columbia. Coincidentally this final shuttle mission coincided with another historical milestone:  the 42nd anniversary of the July 20, 1969 Apollo 11 lunar landing.

With the wonder of a child, I watched with rapt attention as the final moments of this 30-year adventure unfolded live online via NASA’s live video feed.

I’ve always been enthralled with aviation — my grandfather, Papa, flew a C-47 in World War II and my Dad privately flew various aircraft, including a Cessna 310. But the Space Shuttle was especially significant.

The program began when I was in first grade and during my formative years served as an enduring symbol of education and exploration. The Shuttle captivated my imagination by symbolizing “intelligence in action.” It also exemplified achievement over seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

In the days before the Internet I watched on television as the Shuttle roared into the sky and then looked to the night sky as it streaked overhead like a shooting star. These were special times; moments that impressed upon me positive memories and feelings.

Space Shuttle Mission STS-135: Final Approach As Seen Through Atlantis Pilot's Heads-Up Display (HUD)

Years later, I shared a similar moment with my sons — Jacob (then 7) and Max (then 5) — when we watched “Hubble 3D” in IMAX at the California Science Center.

When the movie featured a Shuttle launch sequence my younger son, Max, turned to me with awe and fascination in his eyes. Later in the film, my older son, Jacob, stared excitedly at the screen and asked me how many stars there were in space!

I felt especially connected to the Space Shuttle when, in 1990, Leroy Chiao, Ph.D.,  who grew up in Danville, California as did I was selected as a NASA Astronaut.

NASA Astronaut Leroy Chiao, Ph.D.

He also earned a Master of Science and then a Doctor of Philosophy in chemical engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara — the school that would later become my undergraduate alma mater.

When Dr. Chiao was selected, I was the editor of my high school newspaper, The San Ramon Valley High School “Wolf Print.”

I was invited to meet Dr. Chiao with other high school newspaper editors at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he was working at the time.

He spoke about the Shuttle program and what he anticipated would be his role. Notably, Dr. Chiao flew as a mission specialist on STS-65 (1994), STS-72 (1996), and STS-92 (2000).

Dr. Chiao had logged more than 36 days, 12.5 hours in space, including more than 26 EVA hours in four space walks. He was also the Commander of Expedition 10 on the International Space Station (2004-2005). Dr. Chiao left NASA in December 2005.

In April 2003, I attended my first academic conference — the International Academy of Business Disciplines (IABD) — in Orlando, Florida.  I leveraged my proximity to the Kennedy Space Center and drove my rented Ford Mustang from Orlando to the historic spaceport.

Space Shuttle PatchWhen I arrived too late to take a tour of the facility, I explored what I could by myself. I also watched a 1985 IMAX movie I had seen years before at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum called “The Dream is Alive.”

I also bought some items for my sons, including an orange Astronaut jumpsuit both of my sons enthusiastically wore for a Halloween.

Although my visit was brief, being in that historic place was a powerful experience for me.

On November 30, 2008 I was captivated when Space Shuttle Endeavour was diverted to the backup landing option at Edwards Air Force Base  on its journey home from mission STS-126 due to inclement weather in Florida.

I was fortunate to have been able to record the double sonic booms as it passed over Santa Clarita and wrote a blog post featuring an MP3 file of the distinctive sound.

Despite the many incomparable moments of inspiration, however, there were also times of great heartache.

Despite these tragic times, the Space Shuttle will always be my generation’s inspiration — our Apollo program, our crowning achievement, our wildest dreams realized.

The image of that magnificent machine launching like a rocket, orbiting Earth, and then returning  as a powerless glider, will forever inspire and excite me.

It saddens me that the Shuttle was discontinued without a replacement ready to go. Now, for the first time in 50 years, the United States will have no launch vehicle.

Until a new one can be built, American astronauts will be ferried to the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.  Commercial space vehicles will also begin operation in the near future.

NASA is planning to build a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle for deep space exploration which is based on the Orion capsule, which was initially developed for cancelled moon-bound trips under the  Constellation program.

The chances of this coming to fruition in less than five years seems slim.

Space Shuttle Mission STS-135: Space Shuttle Atlantis Lands at Kennedy Space Center in the Early Morning of July 21, 2011

Until NASA initiates a new program, I will celebrate the fact that Space Shuttle Endeavour being on permanent display at the California Science Center.

I am thankful to NASA for 30 years of awe-inspiring adventure and exploration. And, lastly, I will forever remain inspired by the many Astronauts — from the Space Shuttle and prior vehicles — who  “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”