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Goodbye Atlantis

July 24, 2011

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

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