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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.Missions » ISS »