I just returned from Florida after watching the final launch of Atlantis, the end of the shuttle program, and the exit of the United States from sending astronauts into space. I pondered how to describe the events I saw, and then found this Houston Chronicle piece that said it better than I ever could:
For the first time in two generations, there is no schedule for a resumption of human spaceflight in an American spacecraft after Atlantis completes its massive restocking mission to the International Space Station. The uncertainty leading up to Friday’s launch, threatened for days by stormy weather, mirrored a greater uncertainty over the nation’s future in space and its commitment to space superiority.
For that reason and countless personal ones, hundreds of thousands of observers – many bearing flags, ever proud of the country’s most enduring space vehicle – flooded parks, roads, businesses and any place with a vantage point with the hope that the weather would break and they could see the shuttle’s familiar arc and roll one last time.
As many as 1 million people were expected to witness the launch, according to the Space Coast Office of Tourism, with cars and RVs spilling onto lawns converted into impromptu parking lots and throngs gathering shoulder-to-shoulder in a mass of excitement reminiscent of NASA’s Apollo era, when missions to the moon captured the nation’s imagination.
The vast majority of Americans support the Space Shuttle program, and that support was visible among the tens of thousands of people I saw yesterday.