This post is Part 4 in our ongoing series about the last journey of space shuttle Atlantis. See also Part 1, Part 2: VIDEO, and Part 3: PHOTOS.
Just because the space shuttle program has been winding down toward the end of its end doesn’t mean that our work has become easier. In fact, this past week’s cross-country trip to the Space Coast proved to be one of the most demanding stints in our two-year adventure. Of course, the demands have huge rewards.
We flew to Florida on Wednesday. On Thursday, we headed to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) badging office and repeated the now-familiar routine of filling out simple paperwork and being handed what might be out last KSC media badges. We drove from there to the News Center to get the schedule for Friday’s retirement process for the space shuttle Atlantis. Two press briefings were scheduled Thursday afternoon; because they focused on the future, not the past, of human spaceflight, they deserve a separate post. For now, suffice it to say that, yes, we each asked a question. And yes, the briefings were broadcast on NASA-TV.
For the tasks at hand—following Atlantis—we discovered that Friday required a 4:00 a.m. wake-up call. Friday’s alarm clock (cell phones) wasn’t set quite as early as some other of our Space Coast ventures, but with the coast-to-coast time change, we got up near to when we usually go to bed.
We arrived at the KSC News Center by 5:15 a.m., the whole area still cloaked in darkness. Southern California doesn’t boast this deep, quiet darkness. The television news vans were already heading across the street to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), and the press room was bustling with journalists working on adrenaline and caffeine, us among them. Just before 6:00 a.m., our writer-friend and Lofty Ambitions guest blogger Margaret Lazarus Dean, who was officially at KSC for The Huffington Post, arrived and met us at the buses. We boarded and headed to the VAB.
As soon as the press group disembarked, we all spread out along the media line. Photographers set up their tripods, and print journalists milled about. The VAB’s door was already raised, Atlantis inside. This first stop of the day was our opportunity to see, for the last time, the orbiter with those individuals who worked on it, as a group of shuttle workers gathered behind a banner celebrating their accomplishment. A commemorative song, complete with actual launch and landing commentary, played loudly—and then played again. The commentary on the recording was the voice of George Diller, a public affairs officer who did the launch commentary for STS-27 through STS-135; he was now standing just a few feet from us. Atlantis was backed out of the VAB for the last time ahead of schedule, turned, and moved slowly away into the darkness.
The press reboarded the buses. Next Stop: the corner of Kennedy Parkway and Schwartz Road for an in-transit photo op. With the VAB now looming behind the orbiter, Atlantis made its way past us. For an orbiter on the ground, it was moving at a good clip. Usually, the orbiter on a transporter travels at between two and four miles an hour. Later in the day, this orbiter would set a land speed record of ten miles per hour. The press re-boarded the buses.
On to the official handover of Atlantis from KSC to the Delaware North Corporation, which runs the Visitor Complex. We used the port-o-potties right away—better sooner than later when it comes to this particular decision. Then, we milled about because shuttle days are defined by hurry-up and wait.
VIPs and the STS-135 showed up. Anna eyed Sandy Magnus, a fellow Illinoisan and STS-135 mission specialist, standing with her crewmates Doug Hurley and Rex Walheim. Donned in her shuttle skirt, Anna approached and boldly asked whether the crew would sign her skirt. We had purchased metallic-ink Sharpies at Target the day before, and Anna had worked for years against shyness for just this sort of opportunity. The astronauts seemed a little confused yet willing, but their handler immediately said, “No autographs today.” The fear is that one autograph could lead to hundreds of requests. Anna was disappointed. There weren’t really that many people in the media and VIP area, and two male media got the male crew members to sign t-shirts they were wearing.
Sandy Magnus, though, struck up a conversation, impressed by the most unusual request to autograph a skirt. She thought her artsy sister might like the shuttle skirt. So she snapped a photo of Anna with her phone. It was the first and best of several requests that day to photograph the skirt or ask where it came from: Go Chase Rabbits.
When excitement about the skirt died down, NASA felt ready to start the retirement ceremony. A high school student named Sierra sang the National Anthem, and the Merritt Island High School color guard and Titusville High School marching band led Atlantis down the road to stop behind the ceremony stage.
The ceremony was short and to the point. Atlantis’s first and last commanders, Karol Bobko and Chris Ferguson, respectively, spoke about their relationships with the orbiter. Bill Moore from Delaware North spoke too. KSC Director Bob Cabana and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden had their commemorative and uplifting say about the shuttle program’s end and the orbiter’s new role to educate and inspire. Bolden noted about NASA, “We are not in the history business. […] We are in the business of making science fiction into science fact.”
All the VIPs on stage then signed the care of Atlantis over to the Visitor Complex, as buzzards circled closer and closer overhead. This orbiter officially remains the property of NASA, the only orbiter indefinitely on loan to its museum home.
We re-boarded the buses. Friday had miles and hours yet to go before we could sleep. Stay tuned at Lofty Ambitions for the rest of the story. The party only got bigger.