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Space Shuttle Atlantis launch will be iconic event, the last of its kind

posted Jul 7, 2011, 4:03 PM by Lt Col CAP NJWG/GRA KING, ZACHARY Z

Thursday, July 7, 5:55 PM

NASA is holding to its target launch date for the Space Shuttle Atlantis, even as rainy weather threatens to delay the space shuttle from blasting off until the weekend. As Jason Samenowreported :

A tropical wave gliding into the Florida peninsula Friday threatens to push back the final flight of U.S. space shuttle Atlantis. The launch is scheduled for 11:26 a.m. Friday in Cape Canaveral, coinciding with the possible arrival of showers and thunderstorms.

Spectators hoping to catch the launch Friday need to hope that rain holds off until the afternoon. However, those prospects don’t seem terribly high due to the arrival of an ample feed of tropical moisture.

NASA officials are not optimistic about Friday’s launch prospects.

“It’s not looking favorable right now for launch,” said launch weather officer Kathy Winters this morning at a news conference. Winters said there’s a 70% chance weather will prohibit the launch.

If Friday’s launch is canceled, NASA will try again on Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday. Saturday’s launch prospects, however, are also iffy with a 60 percent chance of showers and storms. The best weather conditions are likely to occur on Sunday, when the chance of rain drops to 50 percent. 

NASA is expecting between 500,000 and 750,000 spectators for the last-ever mission in the agency’s 30-year space plane program.

For those who grew up surrounded by the excitement of NASA’s previous manned missions this will be the last chance to live the space dream. As Brian Vastag explained:

I'm sitting in BWI, ready for my flight to Orlando to cover the final space shuttle launch for The Post, and I'll confess – this is a safe place, right? – that I'm excited. I've been a space nerd my whole life, and this last shuttle flight will be my first in-person. It’s the last chance to feel the blast of those big engines -- it hits you in the chest, reverberates. At least, that's what I hear. 

Like so many of my generation (I'll be 40 any minute now), my space dream ignited with the release of Star Wars in 1977 and blasted ahead four years later when I watched the Columbia and its bright white fuel tank soar off the launch pad with my 4th-grade classmates. Not as cool as an X-wing fighter, but it was real. People were flying into space. Someday, I would too, I dreamed.

So did millions of others. The shuttle held out hope that the regular people -- the non-fighter jocks, the teachers, the engineers, the reporters -- could all zoom into orbit.

Recently, I spoke with National Air & Space Museum curator Valerie Neal, who got closer to the dream than most. In the 1980s, she worked at Johnson Space Center, donned scuba gear and guided astronauts in underwater training. Neal got a little misty as she recounted the history of the shuttle, and her own space dreams. At one point, she told me, NASA sketched plans to launch a passenger cabin in the shuttle's cargo bay. Load it up with 40 or 50 seats and haul up a gang of dreamers for the greatest thrill ride of all time.

Commuities around the country are feeling the effects of the end of NASA’s manned space program, particularly Houston, home to NASA Mission Control. As AP reported :

The end of the space shuttle program is hitting its Florida launch home in the pocketbook with some areas practically becoming economic ghost towns. But Houston, home of Mission Control, is getting hit somewhere else: in the ego.

Aerospace ranks only fourth among booming industries, far, far behind king oil, Mayor Annise Parker said. It’s a pride thing for a city whose baseball team is the Astros and whose basketball team is the Rockets.

Space is “part of our psyche here,” Parker said. “It’s how we view ourselves as a city.”

This is a metropolis of 4 million people that has tied its identity to space and to the shuttle specifically. But that identity has taken three hard hits and the loss of thousands of jobs is just one of them.

The first blow came in 2004, when then-President George W. Bush announced the end of the space shuttle program. His plan was to replace it with a return-to-the-moon program run out of Houston.

Then in 2010, President Barack Obama canceled that over-budget Houston-centric shuttle replacement program. He proposed going to an asteroid in a plan that at the moment is less detailed, especially when it comes to Houston’s role. The concept relies on private companies to take NASA’s place when it comes to shuttling people to Earth’s orbit and the International Space Station, with NASA buying rides on these private ships. Many of those private companies — including the acknowledged leader, SpaceX, have little connection to Houston.