Look what we can do – the final flight of Atlantis

In a confluence of serendipitous events on my flight to Boston this morning, I got to watch Anderson Cooper & CNN’s coverage of the final launch of Atlantis. I also got to see the shuttle flight in person, directly out of my airplane window. Besides the literally awesome fact we just sent 4 Americans into space, there were two other parts of the event that I wanted to share.

Anderson Cooper was covering the launch with John Zarrella and Astronaut Cady Coleman. The trio spent some time discussing the fact that this was the last flight of Atlantis and the manned-shuttle program. NASA will be paying Russia to take it’s scientists and equipment to the International Space Station, allowing NASA to focus it’s resources on more distant and unexplored fields of space, such as asteroid missions, robotics, and other planets.

Anderson asked Cady how she felt about the end of the program, and she made the most obvious and revealing point: going into space is now normal. At the beginning of the space program, every update, every launch was front page news. Headlines above the fold on page 1. Today’s launch of STS 135 was on page 12. American shuttle programs have gotten to the point of standard operations. Expensive and complicated operations, yes, but daily “neat but not that big of a deal” operations.

Now, I’m sure some of you are thinking I’m underestimating the awesome power of the shuttle program. I’m sure most of you can name the first man on the moon, what day he first walked there and what his first words were. I’d bet about half of you know the name of the second man on the moon, the first female astronaut, the first black astronaut. But how many of you can tell me when the STS 134 launched? How about STS 125? Do you know how many Americans are on the International Space Station right this very minute? Can you even name the “Final Four” astronauts that launched on Atlantis this morning?

Whether we do it because we’re desensitized or because we can only focus on so many things at a time, but we all just expect there to be Americans in space.

Going into space is normal.

So after all of that, it makes sense (at least to me and Cady) that NASA is refocusing it’s resources back to the very edge of the envelope. When we make it to Mars or land on an asteroid, when we put a robot on Jupiter, Neptune or Pluto, NASA will make the headlines again. Headlines above the fold. Page 1.

Just prior to launch, Commander Chris Ferguson said it best:

“‘The shuttle is always going to be a reflection of what a great nation can do when it dares to be bold and commits to follow through. We’re not ending the journey today … we’re completing a chapter of a journey that will never end. Let’s light this fire one more time, and witness this great nation at its best.”

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