My first visit, Nasa’s final shuttle

At 11:29am EDT, on Friday 8th July, 2011, Nasa’s final space shuttle mission successfully blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, and the whole world stopped to watch it launch into history. On a momentous 12-day mission that took four astronauts and 3.5 tonnes of supplies to the International Space Station, the final lift-off of ‘Atlantis’ both marked the end of an incredible 30 year Space Shuttle Program, and also heralded a bright new age with other powers such as Russia and China set to take the reins of human spaceflight.

Anyone would be over the moon to be treated to a family holiday to Florida to visit the theme parks (by the way… I’d definitely recommend Universal’s Harry Potter World!) but I felt especially privileged because this holiday just happened to coincide with the launch of Atlantis and let me tell you, being in Florida at this time, just miles from launch pad complex 39, was an experience I will never forget.

Now, being a second year History student, I’m not a ‘science geek’ at all; GCSE sciences were as much as I achieved. However, if there’s one topic in physics lessons which always sparked people’s attention and got them interested, it was space. Just pondering over the sheer concept of the universe and space travel blows my mind… There’s something so fascinating and mysterious about the world of outer space, beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, and into the unknown.
After discovering how well-timed our holiday was, we immediately set about visiting the Kennedy Space Centre, the hub of NASA’s operations. What a truly phenomenal day. We visited the Space Centre about two days before the launch of Atlantis and the atmosphere was incredible. So much hype and so much excitement. The entire centre was buzzing and there was definitely an element of exhilarated anticipation in the air.

Upon entering the Kennedy Space Centre, one walks under a giant American flag to gaze upon an even larger iconic Nasa logo. Cue family photo. Firstly, we went on a tour of the 219 square mile complex in an exploration of Nasa’s launch headquarters. Guided by NASA space program experts, visitors are shown the towering launch pads and huge rockets sat in the middle of vast stretches of wildlife preserve, complete with wild manatees and bald eagles.
The highlight of our tour was standing at the top of the 60-foot-tall Launch Complex 39 Observation Gantry. From here you are exposed to a simply breathtaking 360-degree view of the Launch Control Centre, the well-travelled shuttle crawlerway leading up to the pads, and impressive Vehicle Assembly Building. This building was astounding. At 160.3 m tall and covering eight acres, the VAB has the distinction of being the largest single-story building in the world and the fourth largest by volume.

As awe-inspiring as this was, the most overwhelming sight was definitely that of the two giant Shuttle Launch Pads, 39A and 39B. On July 6th, two days prior to launch (as stated by the huge countdown timer at the base of the crawlerway), we stood at the top of the gantry looking out across to pad 39A. There stood Atlantis in all her glory, prepared and waiting for her final journey. I can’t quite explain it, but there was something rather emotional and tremendous about the entire experience. My brother Laurence neatly describes it as a “very complete visit”, and he’s right. I’m honoured and proud to claim that we were among the final visitors to the Space Centre during the Shuttle Programme.

The successful launch of Atlantis, however, was tinged with sadness. 24 US astronauts from the Space Shuttle Columbia, the Space Shuttle Challenger and Apollo 1 gave their lives to space exploration. The names of these fallen astronauts are emblazoned on the monument’s 42-foot-high black granite surface, projecting up into the heavens.

It can be said, then, that there is both cause for cheers and tears. Nobody can deny the iconography of the shuttle and how it brought us the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station, which has been occupied for more than 10 years. Valerie Neal, space history curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, describes how the shuttle made possible “our continual, expanding presence in space”. The last word goes to the commander of the Atlantis, Chris Ferguson: “Nasa, I think, has really laid the foundation for spaceflight, for commercial spaceflight to take off. So I think in ten years, we’ll see that.” Perhaps a future trip would be one into space… but for now its over and out for Nasa’s shuttles.


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