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. PUNISHER

    The NASA budget is tiny percentage comparitively speaking to the big picture. Obama is lost, he's been a puppet in office, it was the plan along. NASA will prevail though!

    May 14, 2010 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
  2. LAW

    AL,
    But that is just the opposite of what is really going on here. The shuttle program is so outdated, that my old Apple 2ii has more computing power in it then the current shuttle. A bit of an exaggeration, but they were both developed in the same era!

    The Obama administration has actually increased the budget and taken the Space Program toward a very necessary research and development stage that will allow us to get to the places that we have been unable to in the past. NASA needs new rocket engines, new robotics, new materials. As well as a new astronaut! The long distance missions that will happen in the future will require the crews to be near superhuman. All of these innovations will be developed over the coming years.

    And it is not the US government that is the problem here. It is the public's perception of what NASA does that sees the Space program as a waste of money. Many people do not understand why we can send men into space but not put a roof over a couple thousand homeless heads. They don't care what dark matter is because it has nothing to do with their wife having a job tomorrow.

    I am certain this is a very painful but necessary act that will change the way NASA performs in the future. Whatever the case may be, I can promise you that the future of space travel is brighter than ever.

    May 14, 2010 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Brian T.

    Very well said John Tate! (post # 4). With all the things going on right here on our planet . . . . what kind of person would vote for a president based on NASA's budget???? (directed at post #1) There is a time and place for that . . let's get our troops home first and divert the war costs to other programs, like the economy, and yes! even your NASA program Al.

    May 14, 2010 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Tim M.

    Bob Jackson: Right on!

    John Tate: "More important things on the ground that need the money" Like what? The TRILLION $$ spent on phony "stimulus" that has resulted, 16 months into the waste, in unemployment stil practically 10%??

    ALL politicians have the attention span of a 2 year old at McDonald's, so we generally don't expect them to do things whose payoff can't be put into that night's evening news sound bite. But ending the shuttle program before we have a functioning replacement was STUPID [Bush] !! And ending the replacement program compounded the stupidity [Obama] !! We will really rue the day we abandoned American dominance of manned space flight and the ability to function in earth orbit and beyond. This is the most penny-wise and pound-foolish decsion taken by our government in a very long time.

    May 14, 2010 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
  5. bporlando

    @ John Tate: it doesn't matter how many people voted for Obama because of his Nasa promises. It's the fact that he lied again. Thousands of people are going to lose their jobs, but since millions are out of work already, what's a few more thousand. Since when is our space program a national embarrassment? I must have missed that headline.

    May 14, 2010 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Terry in Maine

    Yes we have important things on the ground that need money and NASA has shown some ineptness of late. But let us consider that flying a shuttle or landing a rover on Mars is not like driving a car or flying a plane. There are risks involved in everything and the failures of NASA (which often translate in loss of lives) since its inception should not overshadow its successes especially the resulting applications of technologies here on Earth from fire fighting to MRI in hospitals to our home insulation to our sun glasses to laptop computers to "cool" laser heart surgery to the heart pumps developed as the result of the shuttle's fuel pump to windshear prediction to cordless rechargeable tools etc...etc.

    I will admit that technologies of use to us on Earth will continue with a different NASA. But a reduced NASA, in the eye of the public (emphasis), will significantly diminish our nation's leadership in adventure, exploration, and planned science and engineering for which there are other benefits – unintended discovery, hope, learning, and wonder! This challenge back in the early 1960s by President Kennedy is what drove the U.S. to its leadership position in space travel. This challenge is what elevated our scientific and technical skills. This challenge is what lead to our children in middle and high schools to aspire to be scientists and engineers. This challenge is what lead this nation to its scientific and technology development leadership. This challenge has gradually eroded for the past two decades and will not be regained if we are to be second fiddles to other nations. In fact, because we have let our manufacturing capacity to dwindle, some of our critical weapons systems and important commercial products we use at home are manufactured by foreign countries. How would we like to be held hostage by other countries? Well, we are getting there.

    We, as a nation, do not covet science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as essential to our survival when this changing world demands knowledge in STEM. This translates to our kids scoring at the bottom in science, reading and mathematics, lower than third world countries.

    Yes, we have important things to address on the ground but if we want to be a second rate nation, go for it. But if we do not want to held hostage by other countries, if we want our kids to really know STEM. if we want our kids to aspire in STEM careers, this is not the way to do it.

    Well, I have said enough. I know this will not jive with some readers but it is my opinion.

    May 14, 2010 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Tammi Moore

    I am sorry, but I have 4 children, and none of their Daddies are around, thank you very uch, and no money from them, thank you, so we have needs here on the Earth that supercede space travel. My kids need rent, shoes, food, school supplies, my car to get around. I am unemployed for 4 years and looking for a job but with 4 kids its hard to find what I want.
    Obama has it right – I need the funds more than the rich space agency. I voted fot Him to provide us what we need for our family, and he is doing besuatifully at that. Let Rush Limbaugh pay for space travel. I need money for rent.
    Tammi In Mississippi

    May 14, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Hihat

    Yeah, I can't belive that someone would vote for a candidate for president based on one issue, esp the space program. C'mon – there's two wars, a huge defecit, a recession, global warming – and you're worried about space exploration? Gimme a break.

    May 14, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
  9. NASA Fan

    We throw LOADS of money at our problems here on Earth, and they are not solved. Adding the relatively puny NASA budget to that will not change much. Money is not the only way to solve problems. The NASA program has enriched us in other vital ways such as national pride, discovery, excellence, desire to explore and learn, do the impossible, be the best, strive to be even better, and get an education to accomplish all this. Space travel is not perfected, space exploration is not complete. It is a shame we cannot value what NASA brings us, other than with a price tag. I have been watching manned space flight my entire life, and I will miss it so much more than I have missed the small price I have paid to fund it.

    May 14, 2010 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
  10. James

    Stop lying about Obama lying. HE did increase the Nasa budget, he's just not going to let that budget be sapped by a program that amounts to putting a Saturn J2 engine on top of a SS solid rocket booster. Quite literally, we could have built that 30 years ago.

    May 14, 2010 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
  11. sar

    What people fail to understand, because the media picks and chooses what to comment on, is that NASA's budget is actually higher next year, than now. He is just focusing that money on different area's other than manned space: the environment for example. 6 billion dollars and not much to show for it, is a waste of everyone's money. He hasn't broken his promise, He never said that he would increase money for manned space flight. The agency has been wasting money for years.

    May 14, 2010 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Carlos

    @NJ Rep...are you kidding me? Republicans work hard so we don't have to???? what country do you live in you moron? Republicans DON"T work hard and expect to get paid six figures doing absolutely nothing!!!

    May 14, 2010 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Sharon Pulsifer

    What programs are going to be funded by NASA money? Do you really think if NASA doesn't have the money it is going to be given to programs on the ground? The only thing it will be given to is the military. NASA and the space program is the main thing that gives us hope for the future. It is our future.

    May 14, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Everett Stowe

    This country was founded on vision, faith, courage and the setting of goals.
    Neal Armstrong and Gene Cernan and Jim Lovell have expressed their concerns about the current direction (or lack of) that our government is intending.
    Apollo 17 commander Cernan: "We (Armstrong, Lovell and myself) have come to the unanimous conclusion that this budget proposal presents no challenges, has no focus, and in fact is a blueprint for a mission to nowhere."
    These are men of courage, vision, faith – like those that founded this country.

    May 14, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
  15. stickman

    The shuttles wont last forever... its time to direct our resources to the next chapter in space. The rest of the world doesnt stand a chance next to our space program....

    May 14, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
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