Dawn Of The Shuttle Program’s End

A recent photo opportunity conducted at the time of payload arrival at the launch pad was an opportunity for many to witness elements of the 30 year program. Image Credit: Jason Rhian

CAPE CANAVERAL Fla. – The day started with images of the end. The shuttle program’s end to be exact. As if to highlight NASA’s murky future Friday’s media tour of Launch Complex 39A began in mist and haze. NASA has made a habit of late to take media out to the historic location to honor the program’s close. This being the final Sunrise Photo Opportunity, the event was one filled with nostalgia, regret – and hope.

NASA and the space agency’s constellation of contractors had many experts available for interview. While explaining how the final flight of the shuttle era, STS-135, on the shuttle Atlantis will provide the International Space Station with a year’s worth of supplies, more than a hint of nostalgia entered their voices. They however were also realistic – the decision to end this program had been made by former President George W. Bush some seven years prior.

Journalists and reporters are paid to convey images and experiences into words. However, in the instance of the final space shuttle on the launch pad even these professionals find that their words fail them. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

Another, more intimate tour of the shuttle service structure at LC39A was slated for later in the day. A safety concern, coupled with an unusually high amount of people out at the launch pad slowed this dramatically. Still, members of the press waited. This was history, a final opportunity to show the shuttle program in its splendor.

When the elevator doors opened the sight that greeted the members of the media - was mesmerizing. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

A tour of the same location that saw men leave Earth for the moon – is an opportunity one should not miss out on. When the doors to the speedy elevator open – the nearest sight that catches one’s attention is the massive, orange external tank (ET). A trip to the nearest edge of the service structure is a daunting affair for those that suffer from acrophobia. The platform is comprised of a metal grating, allowing one to see the floors below. It’s best to just take out the sights in front of you. Peering over the edge, the shuttle and its accompanying ET and Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) are awe-inspiring. Past them Florida’s Space Coast stretches out for miles and miles around.

The White Room is visible in this image, connected to the space shuttle Atlantis. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

Friday’s tour featured several different levels. One of the most stunning is the 95th. Photojournalists were allowed to wander around the base of the shuttle, providing striking shots looking up the length of the shuttle. Although we were on a schedule and many of the escorts had been pulling work days that were over 12 hours long, they did their best to accommodate the requests of the media.

The "Yellow Brick Road" that leads to the White Room and then the shuttle. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

Each level provided new views of the vehicle that has sent U.S. astronauts into orbit for the past 30 years. One thing that is somewhat “new” (excluding some of the more high-profile flights) is the level of interest that this mission has incurred. For instance, some previous tours (shuttle rollouts and others) have seen a total of four members of the media. Not so now, tours that could have easily been conducted with a single van or perhaps one bus now require multiple trips and in some cases four buses.

A view looking up, the space shuttle from the 95th level. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

Still for those that have both followed the program and have worked out at the space center for the past three decades there are still moments when they see something that they have not seen over the past three decades.

Up close and personal - the main engines of space shuttle Atlantis. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

“The other day I was at the very top of the service structure and I got to look straight down the whole vehicle – it was amazing,” said a long-time Kennedy Space Center worker that asked not to be identified.

Space shuttle Atlantis on a sunny Florida afternoon (albeit with a little haze in the area). Photo Credit: Jason Rhian
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