The Final Countdown

posted Jul 8, 2011, 12:37 AM by Stephen Zenter
As we await the launch of Atlantis into orbit, marking the final mission of the Space Shuttle Program, many different emotions are apparent - excitement in the halls of the Mission Control Center, sadness in the hearts of those who have been and soon will be unemployed, and uncertainty in the minds of Americans about where NASA will lead us next.

The past few months have been a seemingly fast-paced race to the retirement of the shuttle fleet.  Since STS-135 was officially manifested as the final shuttle mission (It was originally the launch-on-need mission in the event a rescue was needed for STS-134), the flight control teams have been working diligently to ensure all of our operations products and plans are ready.  Our simulations tested our technical knowledge and flight controller skills.  Select media outlets even watched over our shoulders during the last integrated orbit operations sim for the shuttle program just a couple of weeks ago.  Those wanting to fly and land the shuttle in the motion-base simulator just like the astronaut crews have lined up for their final chance to do so.  And of course, we have all watched as many of our shuttle colleagues packed their things and been forced to leave NASA behind.

I, as all fortunate flight controllers who will support this final moment in history, keep crew safety and mission success as the highest priorities.  Our Flight Directors ensure that we keep these objectives at the forefront of what we do, despite the uncertain future and low morale that has come with the retirement of the shuttle fleet.  The STS-135 mission is scheduled to last 13 days.  The Atlantis crew (Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandy Magnus, and Rex Walheim) will resupply the ISS with needed supplies and spare parts to ensure we can continue operations of the station. 

Routine simulations, meetings, vehicle processing – all things that would previously gone unnoticed by many have taken on more celebratory mood.  Everyone has paused to reflect on the importance of each part of the pre-flight process and recognized that these milestones will not be required again.  We are all fortunate to have witnessed the Space Shuttle Program and the advancements it has brought in technology and to humanity.

Sara and I were even more fortunate to watch the roll-out of Atlantis to the launch pad.  I was the proud recipient of a Space Flight Awareness award in late May.  Part of the award included a trip for us out the Kennedy Space Center to watch the final roll-out.  Watching Atlantis bathed in the bright lights as she made her final journey from the VAB to pad 39A was incredible.  While she moved slowly on the crawler, we were able to get a close view of the engineering marvel she is as well as a true appreciation of her sheer size.  Later that evening, the STS-134 mission came to an end, and we witnessed space shuttle Endeavour and her crew land at KSC.  The landing was at 2:00 am, so she was hard to see.  That combined with her quick rate down the runway only allowed us to see her speed by for a few seconds.  But those sights and sounds (the double sonic booms of the shuttle returning to Earth sound like a cannon firing about 30 yards away) marked another incredible moment that we will never forget. 

Sara and I were even able to spend some time touring around the old launch pads of Cape Canaveral.  Revisiting the pads where Alan Shepherd became the first American in space, the Mercury Seven launched, and the Apollo 1 crew perished was truly awesome.  Seeing Atlantis poised on the pad one last time was even more amazing!  Pictures can be found in the album.

I have not lived in a time where the space shuttle did not exist.  The 30-year program has served our country well, and the shuttle has been a true workhorse in low-Earth orbit.  We will never forget those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in our NASA programs.  We will never forget what the shuttle has done for us.  The Space Shuttle program is what inspired me as a child to dream and to learn.  It is what always inspired me to work for NASA.  While I have my opinions on where NASA is (or is not) headed and what role the US should play in manned spaceflight, my biggest concern is what will inspire the next generation.  Will Christopher see the U.S. lead the world again in spaceflight?  Will he get to witness the awe of sending humans into space like I did?  Will he watch a magnificent spacecraft make its journey to the launch pad?  Will he get the opportunity to see humans launch into space fearlessly aboard a rocket or see them return to Earth?

Go Atlantis!  You are a marvel of technology and human ingenuity and a symbol of America’s hopes and dreams.  Godspeed to you and your crew on your journey!