THE R.V.:

Atlantis landing marks end of an era for space shuttle program

Though the space shuttle program is gone, I can still dream.

Richard N. Velotta

Richard N. Velotta

VEGAS INC Coverage

When the space shuttle Atlantis touched down at the Kennedy Space Center last month, it marked a sad day in our nation’s history, but a potential inspirational jump-start of the commercialization of space tourism.

The 30-year era of the shuttle has ended. Atlantis’ provisioning run to the International Space Station marked the last time we would see our reusable orbiters on a space mission. Now, those spacecraft have one last trip—to museums in several corners of our country.

I’ve been a space junkie throughout the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. I cheered with my elementary school classmates when John Glenn orbited the Earth—three times!

The summer of 1969 was memorable, not because of the anticipation of going into high school but because of what NASA was planning to do. A decade before, it was unthinkable—land men on the moon and safely return them.

It was early evening on July 20 when Neil Armstrong made the first footprints on the lunar surface. My photo instructor father had coached me on how to take a photo of a television image and I snapped away while the tears of joy welled up in Walter Cronkite’s eyes.

As the Apollo program wrapped up, NASA began tantalizing us with a vision of a reusable spacecraft that would reduce costs.

I followed in amazement through college and vowed to see a space shuttle launch and landing sometime.

One summer vacation, we were visiting family in St. Petersburg, FL, and I learned that we’d be in the state when a launch was scheduled. I talked my dad into driving across the state to the cape to see the shuttle go up. He groused about the traffic, but knew this was one of my ambitions. Off we went.

We were all set up to take pictures and witness the roar when we got some unfortunate news. With three minutes left in the countdown, the launch was scrubbed. It was a long, silent drive back to St. Petersburg. I learned from a news report that the launch was rescheduled for the next day. Of course, I asked my dad if we could make the four-hour trip again.

Negative.

So I watched it on television. When the countdown went through the three-minute mark, I agonized over not being there. Then, T-minus 10... 9... 8... At the :03 mark, everything was shut down. Another launch scrubbed. And my dad gave me “the look.”

There was a great deal of excitement when NASA announced its “Teacher in Space” program, and I followed the selection of Christa McAuliffe as the first civilian space traveler. I was working at a newspaper in Flagstaff, AZ, at the time, and shortly after that program was announced, an unbelievable dream came true. NASA was going to follow up the Teacher in Space program with a Journalist in Space selection.

Although I knew the odds were stacked against me, I had to try. When NASA trimmed the list to 100 finalists, I missed the cut. I think Geraldo Rivera was among the 100 finalists. Also a bunch of writers from scientific publications. I got a nice certificate from NASA in the mail.

I was working the day Challenger was scheduled to take McAuliffe into orbit, and we all know what happened on that dreadful day. The Journalist in Space program was canceled after the Challenger tragedy.

I never did get to see a launch, but I alerted my son, Marco, who took a Florida trip when Endeavour went up in the second-to-last launch. He loved it and didn’t even complain much about driving across the state.

I did manage to make my way out to the Mojave Desert to see a landing at Edwards Air Force Base when bad weather prevented a landing at the cape.

To this day, I still look to the heavens with hope that someday I could escape the bounds of Earth’s gravity.

There are others who feel the same way, like Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic enterprise that will take space tourists on suborbital flights some day.

Although the government’s space shuttle program is gone, it has paved the way for private companies to satisfy those of us who someday will make a trip to where few have traveled.

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