The firsts and lasts of Neil Armstrong and Space Shuttle Endeavour

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Published on: September 15, 2012

We live in a world that some might describe as having a bi-polar disorder. We are given choices between Coke or Pepsi, hamburgers or hot dogs, Target or Wal-Mart, Vikings or Packers. More seriously, we are faced with good and evil, the rich and the poor, and the living and the dying. And for every celebration of a first, it seems we must mourn a last.

Sometimes the sharp line between the highs and the lows is blurred and we encounter the wide range of possible experiences and emotions in a single moment.

That is the way I felt in watching the memorial service for Neil Armstrong last Thursday, and it is the way I know I will feel on Monday when we watch the Space Shuttle Endeavour depart the Kennedy Space Center for the last time.

The service for Neil Armstrong at the National Cathedral was about as perfect and wonderful as you might hope and expect it to be for the first man to walk on the Moon. All the right things were said. The music was appropriate. The scripture reading was inspirational. And the setting was particularly beautiful, taking place in a facility considered the spiritual home of the nation, and in which there is a stained-glass window that contains a Moon rock retrieved from the lunar surface during Apollo 11.

As I watched Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan speak of his friend Neil, I thought about the symbolism of the first and the last. Here was the last man to walk on the Moon talking about the first. Here was a service rich in nostalgia for the accomplishments and boldness of our first era in space exploration, taking place during an era in space exploration that is by no means the last, but certainly pales in comparison to the glory days of Apollo.

And now on Monday those of us who call the Space Coast home will witness, experience and endure another last that will call to mind an amazing record of firsts accomplished with the Space Shuttle Endeavour.

On Monday Endeavour is to be ferried to Los Angeles, with a few stops along the way. The trip on top a NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft will mark the last time an orbiter will take flight, the last time we will see a space shuttle fly over our beaches, the last time the facilities used to support a ferry flight will be used and the last time this particular 747 will be flown before it is retired and stripped as a source of spare parts.

The fly out underscores the end of a lifetime of historic contributions to our space program.

Assembled from spare parts following the 1986 Challenger disaster, Endeavour was named by schoolchildren, flew 25 missions, spent 296 days in space and travelled 123 million miles – enough to make 247 roundtrips to the Moon.

Endeavour first launched from Florida’s Space Coast on May 7, 1992. Its maiden voyage, designated STS?49, was a daring satellite rescue mission that featured the first and only time to date that three astronauts ventured outside for a spacewalk together ?? an improvised move necessary to capture and repair a stranded Intelsat communications satellite with three pairs of gloved hands when the originally planned method with two spacewalkers failed.

Endeavour also was the first ship to return to the Hubble Space Telescope in Earth orbit, hosting a critical servicing mission that repaired the telescope’s blurry vision following a difficult time in which the nation’s confidence in NASA needed restoring.

NASA’s newest orbiter also carried into orbit the first U.S. component of the International Space Station, the Unity node, during a 1998 mission that was commanded by Kennedy Space Center’s current director, Bob Cabana. It also lofted eight other major parts of the station, including Japan’s scientific research module, Kibo.

As we say good bye to Endeavour on Monday, I know my heart will be filled with nostalgia for the accomplishments and boldness of a now lost era in space exploration, that already I’m beginning to think of as the glory days of the Space Shuttle.

But if for every first there is a last, and every moment of joy there is sorrow, then I take comfort and find hope that in saying farewell to Endeavour, and in saying good bye to Neil Armstrong, grand new adventures leading to even bolder accomplishments are right around the corner.

In fact, with SpaceX’s mission to the International Space Station and Curiosity’s landing on Mars this year, we’re already getting a taste of what the next great era in space exploration is going to look like.

In the meantime, I invite you to consider the final words offered during Neil Armstrong’s memorial service and keep them in your heart as we all work to build our future in space.

Go forth into the world in peace;
search the cosmos, it is the Lord’s;
and may the God of all strength
nerve you with the courage of the astronauts;
behold the face of Christ in your neighbor;
and the Blessing of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—
be upon you, go before you, and surround you,
now and always.

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