As the Space Shuttle Atlantis begins its final mission, the best word I can use to describe my memories of the U.S. Space Shuttle program is "bittersweet."
Over the past three decades, this remarkable flying machine has accomplished more than most of us can remember. It carried into space the first American woman and first African-American. It helped build the incredible space laboratory known as the International Space Station, launched, serviced and upgraded the Hubble Telescope which, over the past 21 years has revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos. And so very much more.
My first journey to Cape Canaveral for a launch was on April 28, 1989; I was there to watch Atlantis (STS-30) carry skyward the Magellan spacecraft which was to journey to Venus. Unfortunately, the launch was scrubbed with only 31 seconds left on the countdown clock, so I missed the opportunity.
Five years later--on July 8, 1994--I did watch as Columbia (STS-65) carried into space the International Microgravity Laboratory. What an incredible show!
It was quite common to see the Shuttle pass over our homes during evening or early-morning hours. During the last bright pass of STS-69 over Southern California in September 1995, I photographed Endeavour as it flew in front of the constellation Canis Major before dawn. On board was San Diego astronaut Jim Newman and, when the mission was completed, I presented to him my photo. I didn't think it was all that great, but he asked for four more prints to give to each of his crew mates. Why? Because the constellation Canis Major, the great dog, was featured on their mission patch and the crew knew themselves as the "Dog Crew." And I'm now the proud owner of one of the patches that flew with him on that very mission.
And a couple of times I watched the Shuttle's fiery re-entry into the atmosphere. I remember once watching from my home in San Diego as its cherry-red light streaked over the southern horizon; when it was gone, I went inside and watched as it landed in Florida... only 20 minutes later. Amazing!!
Flying in space has always been a dream of mine, and in late 1985, I was one of 1,033 applicants for NASA's new "Journalist in Space" program. But that dream ended only weeks later with the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy. Most of us remember where we were and what we were doing on that dark January day... I was teaching an astronomy class in Southern Arizona when I heard the news. I can't even begin to describe the sickness I felt; if you were not around at that time, no words can capture the feelings we all had; if you were, no words are necessary.
On board mission 51L that day was not only Christa McAuliffe, the first "Teacher in Space", but also veteran mission-specialist Dr. Ronald McNair. Ron and I came to know each other when he shot the very first wide-screen motion picture from space for a consortium of planetariums I worked with, and I interviewed him for an article I wrote ("America Rides the Shuttle") which appeared in magazines such as "The Planetarian," "U.S. Black Engineer, " and "U.S.Hispanic Engineer."
Ironically, I photographed the Space Shuttle Challenger on its last successful flight... on August 11, 1985. On that day, it took off from Edwards Air Force Bace on its return flight to Florida, riding on the back of a specially equipped 747. It stopped for re-fueling at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, and my family and I went out to welcome it and to see it off to the Cape.
Little did we know at the time, as we watched her vanish into the blue desert sky, that this would be her final flight.
It has, indeed, been a remarkable journey. It'll be sad to say goodbye to this magnificent flying machine, but I look forward to a glorious new era of manned space exploration--wherever it takes us. I can only hope that America will continue the dream.