Shuttling the Shuttle: Discovery’s last flight

April 18, 2012

This past July, I stood a few hundred feet from Atlantis as she perched on top of the iconic orange fuel tank and towering solid rocket boosters (SRBs) in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The sun set and the sky went from a pathetic gray to a rich, dark blue. I took pictures and punched mosquitoes the size of softballs. The image I witnessed that day was remarkably similar to the cardboard puzzle I vividly remember assembling when I was just a kid.

The night before Atlantis’ final launch, I slept in my car. A few hours later I watched Atlantis fly into the sky for the very last time. STS-135 was America’s last Space Shuttle mission. I saw it from the press site at Kennedy Space Center with people who had seen a hundred launches before this one, but we all knew this was special.

I cried.

I wasn’t the only one.

I dreamed about the Space Shuttle as a child. I obsessed over it, NASA and everything connected to the space program. I watched whatever grainy footage I could find of launches, Tang, and astronauts in zero-gravity doing whatever it is they do. I wanted nothing more than to be one of them — to see the curvature of the Earth and the spot where sky stops being blue and starts being infinite. I learned to program computers because of a silly lunar lander simulation program my father played on an 8086. I learned later that my thick glasses were enough reason to give up on — but not forget — my dream of traveling to space.

On Tuesday, Discovery took her last trip. Sure, it wasn’t her highest flight, but it was still important. She started in Florida as usual, but this time she was carried by a modified Boeing 747. A few friends shared photos on Facebook taken from Kennedy Space Center. Not too long after those photos started making the rounds, she passed over me as I was standing at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum just South of Dulles Airport where she was scheduled to land. She took a victory lap around Washington, D.C., and was broadcast across social media as she flew by many historic monuments.

I know that there are D.C. locals who are jaded by this sort of thing, but I’m from Michigan. I feel a bit of awe every time I walk down a street and see the Washington Monument on the horizon. That might sound cheesy, but when you put the Space Shuttle in the frame, how can you not be inspired? It certainly makes me want to reach a little higher. Even in her last flight, Discovery had a little more to give to anyone willing to poke their head outside. And hopefully even as she’s caged within the walls of a museum, kids can be reminded of what “we the people” once did.

All in all, she flew by my little spot three times, and I happily took pictures. On the last lap, she was much lower. Even off in the distance, through my camera, I could see the landing gear was down. She flew by and touched down just over the trees for one last time. The jets underneath a 747 sure are a lot quieter than the SRBs that put her into space, but I still like to pretend that the Shuttle is pulling the Boeing.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, is preparing to send an unmanned cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS) on April 30. With any luck, we’ll be launching manned rockets domestically again soon, keeping the good science going up there. But where is the shared mission to be bigger, louder, higher, faster and further than anything that came before? What are we doing that will inspire a 6 year-old to sit in the dark in his basement and dream over a puzzle?

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