The Final Countdown

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Friday, July 8, 2011: The space shuttle launched for the final time. It doesn't seem possible yet that, when Atlantis lands next week, the space shuttle program will be history.  During my middle school and early high school years, the space shuttle program consumed my free time. I've followed the program to a lesser degree since then, but still don't miss a launch or landing and still feel that same excitement and awe every time.

Towards the end of my fifth grade year, my mom suggested Christa McAuliffe when I was given an assignment to write a biography about a famous person. Although the Challenger accident had occurred only four years earlier, I didn't remember it, but my interest in the space program was piqued. The shuttle fleet was grounded that summer due to technical programs and when Discovery finally launched in October of 1990 and I saw my first launch live on television, I was hooked.

For years, I watched every launch and landing, and even recorded news reports to watch until the next mission. When the Hubble Space Telescope was first repaired in 1993, I woke up at two in the morning several nights in a row to watch the nighttime spacewalks live on CNN. I subscribed to Countdown magazine, eagerly awaiting a new issue every month, and clipped every article and photo from the newspaper. I constructed my own shuttles, satellites, and launch pad, and acted out missions for my family (an endless supply of memories to embarrass me with now!). There was a time when I could name the crew members for every U.S. manned spaceflight from memory and could tell you the dates when most of those missions launched. I loved hearing the sonic booms that accompanied an orbiter when it returned home to land in Florida and we went to the Cape once to see a nighttime launch up close in April, 1993, something I appreciate now more than ever.

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For years, I wanted to be a mission specialist on a space shuttle, but I never had a desire to major in engineering or medicine so that dream eventually waned. So, while Gavin was still too young to fully understand Halloween, I exercised my parental privilege of choosing his costume two years ago. He was an astronaut, of course, so at least someone in our family fulfilled the dream!

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Keeping tabs on the space program has changed greatly over the years. I used to be glued to CNN Headline News during shuttle flights just to watch the same story every hour! On Friday, we watched the launch over the internet on my work computer from the NASA web site.  I sure wish the internet existed in my space-crazy days since we could watch the launch without hearing incompetent network news anchors and coverage of the launch wasn't cut off early for a commercial break!

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Gavin has a space shuttle toy and as he sat on my lap awaiting the launch, he placed it on the desk on its end, pointed upward. I wish the shuttle program could continue for a few more years only because Gavin is just now showing interest and I wish we could have the opportunity to share more space memories together! We have watched the last few launches and landings, and he has been very excited. Maybe now it's time to show him all of the old videos of the space shuttle program so he can appreciate the amazing scientific feats our country has accomplished and maybe he'll be in awe of the mere feat of launching human beings into space like I am.

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Hopefully, someday, I'll be able to share the first launch of the next generation manned space vehicle with both of my boys. Jasper is still too young to show any interest whatsoever in an event like the one that occurred last Friday! I know we'll visit Discovery when it settles at its final home a several-hour drive away in Virginia. Until then, Gavin's space shuttle will continue driving laps around the track with his other cars…


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