The end of an era

Well, let’s see.  Back on April 10, 1981, I got up really early in the morning so I could watch CNN’s coverage of the very first flight of the space shuttle Columbia.  After waiting anxiously for hours, the launch was scrubbed in the final seconds of the countdown.  Two days later, I was up early again to watch in awe as Columbia lifted off the launch pad for the very first time.  Later, when I was in college at UCSB, I would hear the double sonic booms as shuttles re-entered the atmosphere off the coast of southern California on their way to Edwards Air Force Base.  I remember attending a monthly meeting of the Santa Barbara Audubon Society that featured Lodewijk Van Den Berg, a veteran Challenger payload specialist.  He gave us an up close and personal look at the life of a shuttle astronaut, and what it was like to live and work in a weightless environment.  In his talk, he touched on the astronaut’s awareness of the risks involved in space flight.  Less than a week later, I watched as Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight and the world got to see what he meant first hand.  The shuttle program was a great success and it wasn’t until years later that the program suffered its only other catastrophic loss, the disintegration of Columbia on re-entry in 2003.

In those early years before shuttles routinely returned to Earth in Florida, I had a couple of occasions to see shuttles piggy-backed atop NASA 747s while they stopped for refueling in Tucson on their way back to Florida.  Now it is 30 years later, and I just finished watching the final launch of Atlantis, mission  STS-135 live on my iPad 2.  Sadly, I never got to see a launch in person (though I did at least manage a peak at a shuttle on the launch pad on a visit to Florida).  A young boy during the Apollo days of astronauts setting foot on the moon, space exploration has always fascinated me.  I will miss seeing them streak over in the night sky.

The space shuttle Columbia arrives in Tucson. Photo © Chris Benesh

Rush – Countdown (the first launch of Columbia)

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