This past week, me and my beautiful wife embarked on a pilgrimage to Florida to watch the final NASA Space Shuttle mission blast off into the blue sky and kiss the heavens! STS-135 was scheduled for 11:26 AM EDT on July 8th, and it did not disappoint despite a day-long panic over the possibility of a weather-related delay. It was spectacular, magnificent, and bittersweet, a (hopefully) temporary moratorium on American manned spaceflight soon to come as Atlantis touches down for the final time 12 days later.
The trip began with struggles; our flights were delayed significantly and we arrived very late. Then our rental car situation was near catastrophic, with our economy rental turning confusingly into a giant, 12-seater van that only managed 8 MPG (Note: I plan to never again use Dollar Rental for our car rental needs.) And with the delays and rental struggles, we decided to not bother sleeping and simply drove straight to Titusville, arriving at approximately 4 AM and picking out the perfect viewing spot.
And we waited...
The crowds gathered, grew larger and thicker with each hour. By the time the sun was visible, the roads were filled with people, all jubilant and excited, ready for history. There was a strong atmosphere of passion and friendliness, everyone there for the same purpose. And we all were glued to the radio, internet and the sky, anxiously wishing the clouds and thunderstorms away.
And then, as the air warmed and the sweat came furiously with the moist tropical winds, the announcement came that the weather situation was good enough for NASA; the launch was a "go." We stood in the streets, everyone fixed forward, waiting for that puff of smoke on the horizon. And then it came, the flash of light, and the craft and occupants lifted, almost gently, beautifully, into the sky, picked up speed and disappeared behind a veil of clouds.
We cheered, we clapped, we nearly cried... It was a flawless end to a magnificent program that had given so much to our society over the last three decades of achievement. It has had problems, it has had tragedy, and it has had triumph, but above all it has represented all the Americans claim to hold in a sense of exceptionalism. My sadness was in that it would be the last time such a sight could be seen for some time, and for a brief while there would be no American people lifting into space.
I anxiously await our return, and am thankfully to have been, in a very small and unimportant way, a part of the historical end to the Shuttle program. Godspeed, Christopher Ferguson, Douglas Hurley, Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim; come home safe and thank you for your service!