Thirty years after the first blast-off, David Usborne reports from the Kennedy Space Centre, Florida, on the end of an era
The first lift-off of Atlantis in 1985
Dotted across the sprawling campus that is the John F. Kennedy Space Centre in Florida are blue and white signs designed to get the thousands of workers here pepped up. “1 Days to Launch”, they declared yesterday above an image of the NASA shuttle. But they might have read “1 Days to Pack up your Bags”.
It is 30 years since the first shuttle, Columbia, lifted off from its pad here at Cape Canaveral and opened a new chapter in an American space romance that began a decade earlier with the Apollo flights. The mission about to be undertaken by the shuttle will be number 135 and the last. For the first time in half a century, the US will have no means on its own to fire humans to the stars.
The shuttle swansong will begin, of course, only when Florida’s thundery weather allows. The launch is scheduled for this morning, US time. But as hundreds of thousands of onlookers swarmed to Florida’s Space Coast last night, rain fell in chain-mail curtains and the forecast was ominous. Bad conditions, officials said, presented a 70 per cent chance of delaying today’s lift-off until Saturday or Sunday.
Whenever it begins, the last flight of Atlantis will trigger bittersweet emotions here. Even for those tourists cramming the parks and shores to watch the white bird soar on its thick thread of smoke it will, as one NASA spokesman put it, be a “bucket-list” moment, never to be experienced again.
The original Atlantis crew
Already as the digital countdown directed from Mission Control in Houston ticked down, a sense of nostalgia was filling the press centre. Even reporters who have been covering launches for years weren’t shy to have their pictures taken beside a vintage space suit brought into the filing centre for the occasion…… Continue reading Final countdown: The space shuttle’s last ever mission