Discovery’s bittersweet departure from Kennedy Space Center

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Published on: April 22, 2012

This past week the Space Shuttle Discovery departed the Kennedy Space Center for good, flown to our nation’s capital atop a NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.

Bittersweet, was the word most commonly used here on the Space Coast as people described their feelings about the day. And I must say there truly is no better word for the emotion I felt too.

Type the word out on your computer, right click it and check the synonyms. Your options include poignant, nostalgic, affecting, touching and sentimental. All good words, but none more appropriate than bittersweet.

It was sweet because, in my opinion, there is no greater sight in aviation, and perhaps even in the space program, than seeing a space shuttle flying atop a 747. It is a mesmerizing sight. The world’s biggest biplane.

Truth is, as much as I thrill at the sight of a rocket launch, I’m probably the only person associated with the space program that secretly cheered for the weather to be bad here at Kennedy Space Center so the shuttle would land in California and have to be ferried home, just so I could see that thing fly over the beaches.

It was sweet because thousands of people in and around Washington, D.C. got the chance to see that incredible spectacle as the NASA pilots circled the nation’s capital several times before landing at Dulles International Airport.

But there was plenty of bitterness too.

My wife and I were at the Shuttle Landing Facility for Discovery’s fly out Tuesday morning. We watched as NASA 905 took off, flew over the beaches and a few minutes later made one more low pass over the runway before heading north.

Standing near us were current space center workers, members of the NASA Alumni League who had worked on the shuttle in its early days and others, including the commander of Discovery’s final mission into orbit, Steve Lindsey.

As Discovery faded from view, I looked at Steve and you could see that he, like so many others around him, were on the verge of tears, nearly overcome with strong and conflicting emotions that were provoked by yet another sign the Space Shuttle program has truly ended. Later he told me, as he told others, “I didn’t expect that reaction.”

By the time I had returned home that morning, Discovery was just making its initial approach toward Washington, and the cable news channels were beginning to show pictures. Occasionally you would see shots of people on the ground looking up. There was waving and cheering and yelling. People were thrilled to see Discovery.

My bitter moment of the day came when the 747 finally landed at Dulles and it hit me that Discovery will never fly in the air again, permanently grounded. And my bitterness turned to disappointment and anger.

Disappointment because our nation’s leaders have failed us, and continue to do so. Anger because we should never have scrubbed this program until we had a replacement capability built, tested and operational.

Too often these days, this line of thinking immediately leads to playing the blame game. Someone invariably blames President Bush for killing the shuttle program, which he did. But there was supposed to be a replacement program called Constellation, which never got enough money to do the job it was meant to do. Some try to blame President Obama for killing the shuttle program, which he didn’t. But Obama did yank the rug out from under Constellation, offering two extra shuttle flights as a pitiful consolation prize.

Admittedly, that’s an oversimplification of all the history and issues involved, but the point is there’s plenty of blame to go around. But as they might say on Battlestar Galactica, I don’t give a frack who’s to blame. All of our leaders in Washington, past and present, can share in the responsibility for providing us with the bittersweet day we experienced last Tuesday.

This week we saw thousands of people cheer as Discovery flew overhead. That tells me the spirit of exploration is alive and well in this country. Polls may tell us that support for the space program is a mile wide and an inch deep, but it is there nonetheless. Again I say it’s time for our nation’s leaders to open their hearts and our nation’s wallet to the possibility that some investments in our future are worth doing just for the sake of doing, rather than counting on economic payoffs realized in time for the next election.

Finally, with Discovery gone, and Endeavour soon to follow, it’s time for all of us to look forward and get the word out that this nation is by no means done with human spaceflight, and that for heaven’s sake the Kennedy Space Center is not wasting away, gathering cobwebs. Work is being done to prepare for our future adventures in space. To be sure, the Kennedy Space Center, indeed the entire Space Coast, remains open for business.

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