It was warm. Not so warm that the humidity was overwhelming, though. And there was a nice, cool breeze off of the water. As I stood in that field, surrounded by hundreds of my peers and the national media, there was no where else on the planet I would have rather been. I scoped out my spot, just to the left of the countdown clock, where I had a direct line of sight to the launch pad. That spot was intentional. I knew that by standing there, I would be able to find myself in every photo taken of this day forever. This was where I wanted to be. Where I needed to be.
I was about to see the final launch of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program.
The energy at the media site was electric that day. It was the same energy I had felt before at other launches I’d attended. But it was coupled with something else this time. Something somber. Confusion maybe? What would be next? Where would our nation go from here? How long would it be before America could launch astronauts from US soil again? Everyone out there wondered that exact same thing. We were all mourning the loss of this great program, this fleet of beautiful vehicles who carried our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers to the cusp of space and back. And that kind of mourning, coupled with the excitement, anticipation and uncertainty that each launch would bring was strange.
It was all very strange. That’s the only way I can describe it. It was just strange. I was there for work. I was managing media relations at the launch site for the space company I was working for at the time. I held on to that job just long enough to be there at that exact place at that time.
Now some people may not understand what our nation’s space programs are all about. They may wonder why we are spending so much money up there when we have such a dire need to spend money here on earth. All I ask is that they look up. Look up and look out beyond your own front door, beyond your own back yard. There is more to this universe than us. Life is so much bigger than we are. So me, like many thousands of others who commit their lives to the space program, do it because we care so much about this planet. I wish people understood that the amount of money the government spends on space exploration is only half on one cent of every tax dollar. It’s actually less than half of one cent. It is ridiculous how much we can do with such minuscule budgets every year. And the men and women who do this line of work, pour their hearts and should into it. Working in the space industry isn’t just a job, it’s a way of life for all of us.
What people don’t understand, what they don’t often see, are the benefits. It’s much more than Teflon and tang. It’s inspiration for future generations to strive to be bigger, to dare to do more, to go boldly beyond anywhere we’ve ever been. It is important.
On that warm day in that field on the water, I sidled up to the countdown clock and gazed across the creek to the launch pad three miles away. The sound of George Diller’s commentary echoed from the speakers perched high above the crowd.
“Go for main engine start.”
“T minus 10…9…8…7…6…5 – all three main engines up and burning – 2…1…zero and liftoff! The final liftoff of Atlantis. On the shoulders of the space shuttle, America will continue the dream.”
I stood there in awe of the smoke, the flames, the beauty of what these four people were doing riding that rocket to space. The finality of it all took my breath away. I closed my eyes, let the tears flow, and waited for the shockwave of the launch to rattle my chest. The launch literally touching my heart.
With George’s final space shuttle commentary complete, my friend Rob took over.
“Houston now controlling the flight of Atlantis. The space shuttle spread it’s wings for one final time for the start of a sentimental journey into history.”
By that time, I was hugging and sobbing uncontrollably along with hundreds of strangers. The sentimentality, the sadness, it was palpable.
The space community is a microcosm in and of itself. We have our celebrities, our villains, our arm-chair rocket scientists. But deep down, every single person I know who touches space, touches it with their heart. It’s an industry like none I’ve ever seen. The passion is distinct. We all want to explore. We may not all want to go ourselves, but we crave the knowledge of what’s beyond our line of sight. And we will launch humans from US soil again. And you can bet that I will find a way to be there on that momentous day, waiting to feel the rumble of that launch all the way to my core.