On July 8, 2011, the space shuttle Atlantis lifted off from Kennedy Space Center. And we were there. No U.S. manned spaceflight has occurred since.
If you’d like to see our photos from launch day, click HERE. Yes, we included photos of John Oliver and Anderson Cooper, too.
One of the people we met while we were following the end of the shuttle program was Margaret Lazarus Dean. She, too, was there for the last launch and for Atlantis’s museum installation. In her new book, Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight, she writes, “Of all the orbiters, Atlantis was the one I could never quite get a handle on, the one that never really developed a personality for me, and so maybe it’s fitting that it should be the last, that it should be the one I should have to say good-bye to.”
We feel similarly about Atlantis, the newest and somehow least distinct shuttle. We cannot separate our attachment to Challenger and Columbia from the fatal accidents, those shuttles going to pieces. Discovery was the first shuttle we saw up-close and personal; the trip to see Discovery’s not-launch in 2010 changed our lives. Endeavour was our shuttle, the one we’d seen land in California only months after we’d moved there in 2008 and the one we followed most closely through not-launch, launch, and across the country and through Los Angeles streets to the California Science Center. Not being as attached to Atlantis may well have made that last launch easier for us and more easily thought of as emblematic of the shuttle program.
Waiting in the press briefing room after that last launch, Anna leaned over to Doug and whispered that she would start clapping when NASA’s launch managers walked in. She didn’t care that we were supposed to be objective journalists. We wanted the mainstream press, who’d shown up for the first time that morning, to see those of us who followed the end of the shuttle and the even smaller group who covered launches for years display a deep understanding of the story. We wanted the managers to know that those of us who weren’t insiders understood that the space program mattered and that individuals made it happen. We knew that, if we started clapping, it would catch on. This press core had just witnessed an event that moved them physically and emotionally. All they needed was a nudge. So when we started the applause, it rightly felt as if everyone had been overwhelmed with awe and gratitude at once. A standing ovation seemed an inevitable, spontaneous response to the moment.
Awe comes from words meaning terror, dread, grief, and depression. The current sense of awe connects the concept with the divine, but the word has not shed the shadow of those early meanings nor that depth of feeling. That the shuttle could inspire awe in the two of us and, undoubtedly, in anyone who witnessed a launch in person is a testament to ambition and desire, even when it falls short. We should be overwhelmed with awe and gratitude more often. These occasions are rare indeed.