The End of the End (Part 7)

This week, our “Celebrate the Journey” DVDs arrived from Kennedy Space Center. We are such space nerds that we requested NASA’s video documentation of the journey of the orbiter Atlantis from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the Visitor Complex. As of this week, Atlantis is enshrouded in thick, white plastic to protect it as construction workers finish the building around the orbiter.

We wrote about the first half of that November 2 journey in Part 4 of this series, and we’ve posted photos in Part 3 and Part 6. It’s time that we revealed the rest of the story of Atlantis’s transfer.

After the bigwigs signed the paperwork, with Atlantis parked behind them and a high school marching band and color guard joining in the pomp, the media—that’s us—boarded buses to the orbiter’s next stop: a community barbeque.

Exploration Park was brimming with families. The food stands—the ones with caffeine—were a welcome sight for us. The Kennedy Space Center public affairs representatives handed us off to the Visitor Complex public affairs representatives, and we were free to wander around as everyone waited for Atlantis.

With novelist and Lofty Ambitions guest blogger Margaret Lazarus Dean, we circled the silver Astrovan on display. NASA no longer had a need for the Astrovan, which used to transport astronauts to the launch pad, so here it was for us to see up close. We each meandered to check out the booths. The corporate newcomers to spaceflight were there. SpaceX displayed a mock-up of their Dragon capsule, Sierra Nevada showed a little Dream Chaser that’s more reminiscent of the shuttle, and XCOR was there with its own winged spacecraft, the Lynx.

All the while, speakers regaled the crowd with pep talks and stories. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and KSC Director Bob Cabana joined each other on stage, repeating some of what they’d said earlier in the day during the sign-over ceremony. They also shared something we didn’t know: they had both served in the Marines, their sons served in the Marines, and their sons had actually served together at some point. We’d never seen these two men more relaxed than during their friendly banter with a crowd of shuttle workers and their families.

Before long, the orbiter’s tail was in sight, rising above the tree line like a shark’s fin breaking the surface of the ocean. People gathered on the sides of the road, as security walked up and down to wave people back behind the sidewalk. Slowly, Atlantis rounded a bend and emerged. At a turn, right in the middle of this community barbeque, the orbiter, mounted on its transporter, stopped. The crowd swarmed the vehicle.

We stood under a wing. We walked around to stand under the orbiter’s nose. A Visitor Complex media representative indicated that this was the closest that the public had ever been allowed to get to a space shuttle. Adults pointed to different parts. Kids wriggled with excitement. And NASA let us all hang out with Atlantis for a good, long time.

When we were relatively sated, we headed to our next bus. We hadn’t eaten much, it was getting warm, and we could spend a few hours wandering around the Visitor Complex before the next official press event. The café was busier than we’d ever seen it, and the French fries were hot, salty, and delicious. The rocket garden had a nice breeze. And there were special exhibits set up for the day. That’s where we tried on spacesuit gloves and met a man who trained shuttle astronauts for Extra Vehicular Activity, or spacewalks. On the Space Coast, we’re used to staying busy even during what might look to be downtime.

The day was proceeding according to schedule, and next up was Atlantis traversing the last leg. We gathered by the ditch between the Visitor Complex and the road we’d driven to KSC many times. This was our hurry-up-and-wait stage, something by now familiar to our journalist selves. Finally, Atlantis rounded the last corner and headed our way.

Thirty astronauts—Apollo veterans as well as shuttle astronauts—led the space shuttle. Each was acknowledged by name as the group made the long pass in front of the large crowd of cheering onlookers. From Apollo, Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Gene Cernan, Charlie Duke—though not necessarily in that order. From Shuttle, Fred Gregory, Kathy Thornton—astronauts we had interviewed before. Mary Cleave, Eileen Collins, Mark Lee, Norm Thagard—astronauts we would meet the next day. This group of former space-travelers led Atlantis all the way around the corner to the door of the orbiter’s new home.

Anna with Eileen Collins, first-ever female commander of an American spacecraft

The media scurried over to greet the orbiter and the astronauts there in the construction zone. The group gathered loosely in front of the orbiter for a photo op. Then, we all mingled for a few minutes. Some journalists pressed for interviews, and some of the astronauts headed into the gaping building and out of view. Anna introduced herself to Eileen Collins before all the astronauts made their way to their lodgings.

We waited for dusk. A few bright lights illuminated the orbiter. Finally, it was dark. The fireworks began bursting in air behind Atlantis. Pops and bangs. Green sparkles and silver steaks. Red, white, and blue, of course. A late burst in the dark, after we turned to leave. We were spent.

We caught a bus back to the News Center to retrieve our car. Margaret had already contacted Omar Izquierdo, her KSC insider friend and one of our Lofty Ambitions guest bloggers. We all met at El Leoncito in Titusville. We ate our fill of good Mexican food. We toasted to the events of the day.

Omar told us that folks at KSC had taken to say, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” That’s what a shuttle worker had said over the microphone at the beginning of the day, when Atlantis was emerging from the Vehicle Assembly Building in the pre-dawn darkness and chill. Omar and Margaret agreed that folks shouldn’t be smiling about the end of U.S. manned spaceflight. It’s okay to be sad, to be bitter. The space shuttle program had a two-year end, an end that ended when Atlantis arrived at its museum home. Though we remain happy to have seen as many moments of that story as we possibly could, on November 2, 2012, we were sad. What are we to do now?

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