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Last Chance to See (Part 16) July 20, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
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As we write this post, we remember that on this date in 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. Today is the anniversary of humankind’s first steps on the lunar surface, when Neil Armstrong stepped off the lunar module at 2:56 UTC (July 21), or 10:56 p.m. EDT today (for our recent post on time, click HERE).

As we post this, we are likely hours away from the symbolic end of the space shuttle program. Atlantis is scheduled to land at Kennedy Space Center at 5:56 a.m. EDT, with another shot about ninety minutes later. By tomorrow evening, the precise anniversary of Armstrong’s small step and humankind’s giant leap, the last functioning space shuttle will be a historical artifact. (For our related post on shuttles as artifacts, click HERE.)

On Monday, we finalized media credentials with Dryden Flight Research Center, in case the space shuttle lands at Edwards Air Force Base here in Southern California. After we moved here three years ago, one of our first trips out of the neighborhood was to see Discovery land. Seeing the last mission conclude here would suit the story we’d like to tell.

Yesterday, the email to the credentialed press made it clear that Kennedy Space Center wants to host the final shuttle party. Edwards AFB isn’t even a back-up landing site tomorrow. If the weather isn’t good in Florida on Thursday, Atlantis will orbit for another day and try again for KSC, though Edwards will be the back-up site for Friday and, if necessary, Saturday.

STS-135 Crew: Chris Ferguson, Rex Walheim, Doug Hurley, Sandy Magnus

The weather on the Space Coast looks good—improving, the email said—for tomorrow’s landing. (for our most recent discussion of weather, click HERE.) NASA has a slew of events scheduled after the landing, with Charlie Bolden, NASA’s Administrator, and STS-135 Commander Chris Ferguson scheduled to give remarks at the runway at 7:45 a.m. Following that, there’s a full day of press briefings, comments from administrators and crew, photo opportunities with Atlantis outside the Orbiter Processing Facility, and employee appreciation all around. Emotions will be reeling, adrenaline will keep journalists on the story for hours, and everyone will draw this landing out as long as they can before leaving KSC.

Meanwhile, we’ll be in California, three hours behind and thousands of miles away. We may spend a good portion of our usual sleep time watching NASA-TV. That’s okay. We’ve been part of the media fanfare before. Now, it may well be time for us to contemplate the end of the space shuttle program from some distance. As with the frenzy at KSC tomorrow, we’ll draw out our “Last Chance to See” series a bit longer, too, unable to stop before we’ve seen the landing and articulated some larger meaning. Stick with us as we work our way through just a little more.

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