On Friday, Atlantis launched into space for the final time, marking the beginning of the end for NASA’s space shuttle program. More than 30 years earlier, the shuttle Columbia took off for the first time.
Chris Bray and his father, Kenneth, were there to see both.
Chris Bray, a 43-year-old technical director at a creative interactive marketing agency in New York, posted two side-by-side photos of the shuttle launches to Flickr. In one, a 13-year-old Bray stands by as his father Kenneth, then 39, peers into binoculars. In the other, the son and his father, now 30 years older, stand in the same positions. The moving photos have attracted more than 481,000 views in just two days, tapping into the emotions and nostalgia many have felt as the program ends.
Chris Bray and his father have “always been astronomy buffs and big supporters and followers of the space program for as long as I can remember,” he said in an e-mail.
“My father was building model rockets growing up in the ‘50s and I was in rocket club during grade school,” he said.
Kenneth Bray, a jewelry designer, was commissioned to make a series of pins for Columbia’s first mission, and that’s what led them to the shuttle launch April 12, 1981. There, the 13-year-old and his father watched Columbia’s first flight from one of the causeways at the Kennedy Space Center. (You can see a picture of the pin here.)
As news of the program’s demise came out three decades later, the men decided they would attend the final launch for a “ great bookend experience.”
The father and son entered a lottery to purchase tickets to the launch and got passes to the Astronaut Hall of Fame viewing area. Despite a delayed flight from Newark and a lack of rental cars at the Orlando Airport, they made it to the launch site — in a 15-seater van — at 4 a.m.
Standing in Astronaut Hall of Fame viewing area, located just outside the gates of the Space Center, the father and son documented the moment the same way they had years ago.
“We’ve always loved that first photo,” Bray said. “Taking a similar one for the last launch seemed like the perfect opportunity to celebrate the shuttle program and our relationship by putting the time passed in perspective, celebrating the interests we share, and illustrating the father/son bond we’ve maintained over the years.”
The final shuttle launch has elicited powerful memoirs from many. Washington Post readers shared their best memories from the 30-year program. “I remember my childhood in the sixties was dominated by watching every space launch with my family, and since my father was an Aerospace Engineer, we had a running commentary with every broadcast,” reader Bromisky wrote. “We had everything in front of us, now, it's all over.”
The moment was emotional for the Brays, as well. “It was a thrill to be at the first launch, and it is one of our fondest memories we share together,” Bray said. “Being at the last one, and being able to share it once again held great significance for both of us.”
While Bray and his father are sad to see the Shuttle program end, they are looking forward to seeing what’s in NASA’s future.
As for the photos, Bray said he is surprised at the reaction he’s getting. “We’re both very humbled that the photo has touched so many people, and we’re happy we could share it with everyone,” he said.