May 14th, 2010
01:49 PM ET

Watching hatch close on Atlantis' (maybe) final flight

Space Shuttle Atlantis sits on the launch pad as it prepares for what may be the shuttle's final flight.

The astronauts were all on board. The hatch was closed.  George Diller, voice of launch control, said, "the astronauts appear to be starting their pressure checks."

As I listened to the commentary I could not help but think how all this was coming to an end.  In many ways, it's going to be an agonizing end.

This is supposed to be the last flight of the orbiter Atlantis.  Maybe.  There are only two flights left after this. Maybe.  Instead of a clean-cut ending to the shuttle program,  it looks as if this will be a long, drawn out and agonizing  march to the end.

The next shuttle flight won't come until September maybe October.  That was supposed to be the last.  The July mission, for technical reasons, may not fly now  until next February.  And maybe, just maybe, NASA will add one more perhaps next June.  It's all up in the air, pardon the unintentional pun.

About all that is clear is that thousands of people are losing their jobs I first started covering the space program back in 1982 not long after the very first flight of Columbia.  There was so much euphoria back then.  The new era in space travel had just begun. The most complicated vehicle ever built by humans was flying and coming back landing on a runway. That had never been done before in human history.

A week ago in Houston I interviewed John Young and Bob Crippen.  They are in the history books as the commander and pilot of STS 1 Columbia, the first flight. There was some talk back then both men told me of perhaps flying that flight unmanned.  No way, both men say the argued.  Like the Mercury 7 boys, these two men had the right stuff!  They flew that mission and for the first time a spacecraft flew with humans before it was tested with an unmanned flight.

Thousands of people gathered here for that moment in history.  Since then, I've seen the crowds thin over the years.  Shuttle flights became, except when there were accidents,  too routine to garner much attention.

But now, the people are back! In just 30 minutes, the visitors center here sold out of 9,000 tickets to watch the launch from a viewing area.

People want to see it one more time or for the first time. Now that it is going away, the love affair with the shuttle has been rekindled.

I can't count how many I've seen a launch and it never gets old.  My heart  always skips a beat at liftoff.  It's a love affair I hate to see coming to an end.

Check out our multimedia interactive if you're thinking about making a trip for the last few launches and we'll give you tips on where to go, what to see and where you'll find the best seat for the launch.

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Filed under: Space
soundoff (67 Responses)
  1. AL

    Our president promised us, during his campaign, to expand the NASA program. There are many people who voted for him because of this. Now he wants to shrink our NASA program. What a failure of a promise. The shuttle program may not be the best option, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try and find other options.
    Amongst all the other reasons – adventure, exploration, and planned science there are other benefits – unintended discovery, hope, learning, and wonder!

    Too bad the US government couldn't care less about these things. It's a shame that places like China are going to kick our butt because they are willing to invest the pennies (in government speak the amount we are talking about IS pennies).

    May 14, 2010 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
  2. CK in SD

    Nothing says excel in math and science like the dream of being an astronaut.

    May 14, 2010 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Gabe

    I don't know why the NASA budget is always the focus of a "money sapper". It is an extremely small percentage compared to the budget that goes towards things like the military. That stealth bomber that crashed the other year, would've paid for TWO shuttle missions.

    May 14, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
  4. John Tate

    Sorry, Al, but I can't imagine very many people voted for Obama based on space programs. Most people have come to find NASA's constant screw-ups as more of a national embarrassment. Right now, there are a lot more important things on the ground that need the money.

    May 14, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Nathan

    NASA, like most agencies, typically does a better job with a) direction (something that political considerations like to change, often) and b) funding. NASA doesn't so much screw up often as just get recognized when it does, after all, its a bit like slashing the FAA's budget to 1/10th and then asking them to regulate the world. Everyone always grandstands about this nations (justly) pride of a space agency, but then quickly lose interest in it if they have to pay it more than say a program to build 3 fighter planes that are never picked up for government use in the end.

    May 14, 2010 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Scott Phillips, Queen Creek, AZ

    All is I can say about NASA is OVER BUDGET! When NASA can show me that they aren't going to go Billions of dollars over budget on their projects is when I will start supporting their cause again.

    May 14, 2010 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
  7. MIke G

    Sorry John, but you don't stop everything just because of screw-ups. (ie BP OIL ). Also a promise IS a promise. Creating job should be Obama's focus and this is a clear example of not focusing.

    May 14, 2010 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Dave

    @John Tate,

    What constant screw ups? Tragedies few and far between (1986 and 2003) - almost 20 years!

    For leaving the Earth, traveling in space, and returning, that isn't a bad record.

    May 14, 2010 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Zorro

    Seems to me it'd be easy to pay for a fleet of 10 new space shuttles if we just stopped admitting anyone without a social security number into our hospitals.

    May 14, 2010 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Bob Jackson

    The tragic and dangerous result of the Bush and Obama administrations’ decision to end manned space flight by America will come due years from now when China, and possibly others [Russia; perhaps India] dominate orbital space with their manned capabilities. Every time I hear that the only way to get to the space station for Americans will be to pay for a ride on a Russian rocket, I want to puke! This lack of long term strategic foresight by first Bush, and then accelerated by Obama [who has cancelled the replacement program], could really harm us down the road when and if other countries come to dominate manned spaceflight or orbital presence. What utter stupidity on the part of our so-called leaders!!!

    Given a choice, I would rather have used the billions to bail out GM and Chrysler on accelerating, not ending, American manned space flight.

    May 14, 2010 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
  11. James

    Who the hell can complain about NASA's budget?

    The noted astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, once lamented that it was pennies compared to the national budget.

    Example:
    NASA 2009 Budget = $17.6 B
    U.S Stimulus Act 2009 = ~$600 B

    $17.6 B / ~$600 B = 0.0293 AKA LESS THAN 3% OF THE STIMULUS THAT THE ANNOINTED ONE GAVE US!

    Please, get your facts straight before condemning people and their hard work.

    May 14, 2010 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
  12. NJ Rep

    Listen, it doesn't matter what the promise was...................Obama still broke it. Remember, Republicans work hard.............so you don't have too!!

    May 14, 2010 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Eric

    NASA budget is being increased, not shrunk. What was cut was that Constellation program, but cutting it is paving the way to much better things. Keep in mind there is a satellite currently up, right as we speak, looking only for Earth-like planets, and only in a specific region of the galaxy. Now, why would they be doing that, I wonder?

    May 14, 2010 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Josh S

    All of you guys are idiots. You guys are not looking at the big picture here. I am a fairly young person. In my generation, majority of it lacks the thirst for inspiration to drive the tomorrow's technology. Once the old folks retires, who is going to take over their jobs?

    NASA has contributed more than an arm and leg in the past 50 years than all of the military combined. I have no offense toward the military, but few of the budget spending they have are outrageously high.

    Maybe, you guys should blame on the military for sucking all the money and generating few results while NASA in the past 10 years were on EXTREMELY tight budget and managed to completed so many missions including robotics like the Mars Rovers, Voyager 1 and 2, and others.

    NASA's budget may be really high, but at least they are being efficient with it.

    May 14, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Laura

    "My heart always skips a beat at liftoff." – The trademark grammar of a true advocate of spaceflight. Over the decades, the use of the word "liftoff" has been casually re-replaced by so many cavalier journalists with the old "blastoff," with no care or regard for the original respectful reasons why the language was changed. Bravo, Mr. Zarrella, on showing your journalistic integrity and respect.

    May 14, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
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