Tag Archives: Space Shuttle

Goodbye Atlantis

The space shuttle program has been a bit of a milepost of my life. My son was born the day the first shuttle, Columbia, landed at Edwards AFB in southern California.

I remember very well the day, January 28, 1986, that shuttle Challenger exploded in a fireball of tragedy 73 seconds after leaving the cape. Teacher Christa McAuliffe and six others gave their lives to the space program. A few days later I stood in Arlington cemetery and watched the burial of Challenger Pilot Captain Michael Smith.

The disaster was an abysmal indictment of safety failures among NASA management. The decision to launch was made for political reasons, ignoring pleas from engineers to delay the launch and the families and crew of STS-51 paid the ultimate price for the ignorance of a few.

The Presidential commission to investigate the Challenger disaster included former astronauts Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, and retired General Chuck Yeagar, as members. An excerpt from the report reads:

"...failures in communication... resulted in a decision to launch 51-L based on incomplete and sometimes misleading information, a conflict between engineering data and management judgments, and a NASA management structure that permitted internal flight safety problems to bypass key Shuttle managers...”

Space would have to wait as NASA cleaned house and took its lumps over the Challenger disaster. It would be another two and a half years before another shuttle climbed the Florida sky. Discovery launched on September 29, 1988, marking America’s return to orbit.

Two years later I stood in the Epcot City complex in Orlando one evening and saw my first and only launch. It was a night launch and what struck me was how bright the sky got, even fifty miles away from the pad. I watched STS-33 climb the night sky with it’s classified payload. It was one of the most magnificent things I have ever seen.

February 1, 2003 – Space Shuttle Discovery disintegrated over Texas on its return from the International Space Station. Seven crew members lost their life and marked another tragedy in space. Again it would be two and a half years before another shuttle would scoff at gravity and return to space.

So here we are, a little more than 50 years since Alan Shepard rode Freedom 7 into the sky and became the first American to view Earth from space – May 5, 1961, to now when Atlantis completes the final shuttle mission. We are leaving behind a legacy of tragedy and triumph, wondering when our next space vehicle will slip its bindings and roar away from Earth.

Until then we are hitchhiking with the Russians. I doubt any of the Mercury guys saw that one coming. Eisenhower is spinning in his grave.

The Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, where some remains were buried

The Space Program

I watched The Right Stuff over the weekend. I thought back to the days when we had heroes in the sky.

If you would have asked a ten-year old me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have told you, with complete confidence, I wanted to be an astronaut – a Star Voyager. Or at the very minimum a pilot. I wanted to fly jets. Ah, the dreams of a ten-year old that faded away with childhood. I embraced rock and roll, and floundered in the turmoil of the sixties. By the time I arrived in high school, rebellion dogged my every step, and what should have been the best years of my life became kind of a drag.

Today marks the 49th year since star voyager, Scott Carpenter, became the second man to orbit the earth in his ship, Aurora 7. Lots of stuff going on in 1962 — Kennedy was still in the White House, Steinbeck won the Nobel prize for literature, Axel Rose and Eddie Izzard were born — Eleanor Roosevelt died. I was 8 and didn’t have a clue.

I didn’t follow my dreams but over the years my love of the space program never died. My son was born the day the first space shuttle landed. My heart fractured on the tragedies of  Challenger and Columbia.

Today I have mixed emotions knowing the shuttle fleet will soon be history. And then I smile thinking about the next generation of star voyagers standing on a playground somewhere looking up at the sky and dreaming.

To them I would only say…. “Follow your dreams, kid — follow your dreams.”

Remembering Challenger – Jan 28, 1986

It’s one of those moments seared into memory like the Kennedy Assassination and the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. A blink in history so intense it will never be forgotten. Twenty-five years ago I was sitting in my cubicle in Raleigh, NC.  I was early in my engineering career and life was good. I never missed a launch if I didn’t have to and that morning was no exception. Space flight had become routine and there was very little live coverage that morning. I was listening to coverage on the radio. The last transmission was Commander Dick Scobee’s “Roger, go at throttle up.” At 11:38 a.m., EST, Challenger disintegrated over the Atlantic.

NASA Images

That evening, President Ronald Reagan addressed a country in mourning. He was scheduled to give his State of the Union address, but on the heels of this crisis, pushed it into the next week. He closed his speech that night with portions of the poem “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.:

“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.”

So today we remember the crew of Space Shuttle Challenger.

Commander – Francis “Dick” Scobee

Pilot – Michael J. Smith

Mission Specialist – Ellison Onizuka

Mission Specialist – Judith Resnik

Mission Specialist – Ronald McNair

Payload Specialist – Gregory Jarvis

Payload Specialist – Sharon Christa McAuliffe

“The Shuttle is to space flight what Lindbergh was to commercial aviation.”
~Arthur C. Clarke