Dreading the End of the Space Shuttle Program

Reposted from original at openNASA

Note: The intent of this post is not to express an opinion on the path that should be taken by NASA or its future programs. It is simply an observation from someone experiencing the end of an era.

Have you ever had the feeling of grieving even before a loss? You see it coming and know there’s nothing you can do. Your senses are heightened to every little intricacy and you want to preserve all the details before it is too late. That is the way I feel about the Space Shuttle Program. I’ve worked at the Kennedy Space Center in various areas for roughly the past eight years. That makes me practically a newbie to most of my co-workers, but it feels like a long time to me. Long enough for KSC to feel like home. It is strange and sad to think that it will all be over in a matter of months.

Many people have never experienced anything like working at KSC. The center is sprawling; it has its own gas stations, banking, barber shops, and even a US Post Office on site. People out there speak a different language. When you first start working there, it takes several months before you have any idea what everyone is talking about. They speak in acronyms and in some cases the acronyms have become the words, because hardly anyone remembers what the letters stand for. KSC is similar to a small town, where gossip travels at speeds that far exceed a launching shuttle.

With the Space Shuttle Program, there is much more to it than the end of a contract. It is the end of an era. Most of us have become accustomed to spending the better part of our waking lives there and it is coming to a close. Everything we have come to know as so familiar will be gone, never to be seen again. This will be different than leaving a typical job. When we’re gone, we can never return to the site, never visit to see how things have changed, never set foot on the property again. It is not only a loss of the program for us, but a personal loss. We will no longer see the buildings we spent so much of our lives in, working at all odd hours of the day or night, often on weekends and holidays. The orbiters & ground support equipment we shed blood, sweat, and tears over will become distant memories only to be viewed in museums behind ropes and glass. We will seldom cross paths with many of the people who have become almost like family to us; the co-workers who will be forced to leave the area to find jobs. For us, it is a tremendous loss.

Even though I feel that I am ready to move on and pursue a career in space education and outreach, I can’t help feeling a bit melancholy about the end of the program. There are so many memories, good and bad. There is so much knowledge, expertise, and familiarity. Most of it would sound silly to anyone else, but the things I will miss include long days in the test cells working on welding jobs while listening to my co-workers tell stories from the early days of the program. I’ll miss riding in convoys to deliver Orbital Maneuvering System pods after our work is complete. I will even miss driving past the Gator Lake at the end of the road where we once saw forty-eight of the giant lizards laying up on the banks- as though it was an alligator parking lot.

There are other memories as well. Memories of working on Columbia and getting to sit in the commander’s seat the summer before she was lost. Standing in the shadow of the massive Vehicle Assembly Building to view the launch. Waiting outside with binoculars ready for her to return and the horror of the silence that should have been filled with two telltale sonic booms. Attending a surreal memorial service on the Shuttle Landing Facility runway on a grey day, in a light drizzle with the missing man formation roaring overhead. Examining the wreckage, in awe of the forces that acted upon it. These are moments I’ll always remember.

Now, as we near the end, I find myself looking around a little more, noticing and trying to take everything in. I’ll miss it all: the people, the hardware, the facilities, and the wildlife. It probably seems trite, but I don’t want to forget any of it, not even the little things. Not the chip in the floor at the bottom of the stairs in the test cell that I’ve always thought looks like a dragonfly, or the sound of thrusters when I test “fire” them on the bench, or the pain of AC motor valves jabbing me in the back as I squeeze into places never designed for human occupation. Okay, maybe I could forget that last one. Heh.

Whether you are a fan of the shuttle or not, you must admit that it is iconic. It is instantly recognizable, a beautiful machine and a work of art. It is tough to come to the realization that after this year, we’ll never again see a shuttle stack rolling out to the launch pad or leaving it in a hurry atop a billowing plume. For those of us who have lived and breathed it for years, please forgive us if it makes us a little sad to see the end. To us the shuttle is so much more than the sum of its parts and we’ll truly feel the sting of losing it and the community we’ve become a part of. It is going to be very hard to say goodbye.

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Michael McCarthy, APR

Thanks for writing this. As a Floridian, I have grown up with the space program. For the past ten years living in Orlando, I have tried to watch every launch, whether from the distance or the lucky mornings I can drive over for a dawn launch. It will be sad to see the last launch.

Denise Derrer

Thanks for the insight and sentiment.
Years ago I worked at NASA (then-Lewis) in Ohio.
Realizing the number of shuttle missions were numbered, we made it a point to get our daughters down to Florida last year so they could see a shuttle launch and remember, in years to come and as space flight changes, what that technology was like.
Great memories. Thanks for sharing!