Space shuttle comes to ‘final stop’ after 30 years

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At those words, dozens of past and present flight controllers quickly streamed into the room, embracing one another and snapping pictures while keeping their tears, if not their emotions, in check.

But on the landing strip in Florida, flight director Mike Leinbach said the tears flowed. He himself was awash with emotion as he took in “the beauty of the vehicle,” snapped pictures and posed for pictures at workers’ requests, some of whom face layoffs.

“I saw grown men and grown women crying today _ tears of joy to be sure,” Leinbach told reporters. “Human emotions came out on the runway today, and you couldn’t suppress them.”

Born with Columbia in 1981, the shuttle was NASA’s longest-running space exploration program.

The five shuttles launched, saved and revitalized the Hubble Space Telescope; built the space station, the world’s largest orbiting structure; and opened the final frontier to women, minorities, schoolteachers, even a prince. The first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn, became the oldest person ever in space, thanks to the shuttle. He was 77 at the time; he turned 90 this week.

“I haven’t cried yet, but it is extremely emotional,” said Karl Ronstrom, a photographer who helps with an astronaut scholarship fund. He witnessed the first shuttle launch as a teenager and watched the last shuttle landing as a middle-aged man.

It was truly a homecoming for Atlantis, which first soared in 1985. The next-to-youngest in NASA’s fleet will remain at Kennedy Space Center as a museum display.

This grand finale came 50 years to the day that Gus Grissom became the second American in space, just a half-year ahead of Glenn.

Atlantis _ the last of NASA’s three surviving shuttles to retire _ performed as admirably during descent as it did throughout the 13-day flight. A full year’s worth of food and other supplies were dropped off at the space station, just in case the upcoming commercial deliveries get delayed. The international partners _ Russia, Europe, Japan _ will carry the load in the meantime.

It felt like a two-month mission crammed into 13 days, the shuttle astronauts said, and they worked from dawn to dusk to make up for their small crew size. They said they choked up at times during the flight, whenever they paused and thought about the big picture.

It was the 135th mission for the space shuttle fleet, which altogether flew 542 million miles and circled Earth 21,152 times over the past three decades. The five shuttles carried 355 people from 16 countries and, altogether, spent 1,333 days in space _ almost four years.

Two of the shuttles _ Challenger and Columbia _ were destroyed, one at launch, the other during the ride home. Fourteen lives were lost. Yet each time, the shuttle program persevered and came back to fly again.

The decision to cease shuttle flight was made seven years ago, barely a year after the Columbia tragedy. President Barack Obama nixed President George W. Bush’s lunar goals, however, opting instead for astronaut expeditions to an asteroid and Mars.

Last-ditch appeals to keep shuttles flying by such NASA legends as Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Mission Control founder Christopher Kraft landed flat.

It comes down to money.

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