Misty eyed at the end of Atlantis era

“It was a great day today,” Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Space Operations, told SBS after the shuttle had left the earth.

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A space shuttle launch can be an emotional event and in that respect STL-129 did not disappoint.

“Every time they launch, I cry,” said one ground employee who has worked at the Kennedy Space Center site since 1975 and seen every launch – not all of them as smooth and successful as STL-129.

With “just” 59 problem reports during countdown, STL-129 set a record, of sorts, for a smooth, hitch-free, ride into space.

After 25 years of service, 2010 signals the final year of the Space Shuttle program which will come to an end after five more missions.

The United States government is currently considering which direction to take it’s human space program.

Options currently before President Obama include missions to Mars, revisiting (and staying at) the moon, further expansion of low-orbit missions like the Space Shuttle, and there’s even thoughts of opening up the US space program to commercial ventures.

From 2011, Russia will provide the taxis taking American astronauts to the International Space Station over the next seven years of its planned lifespan, using the legendary Soyuz spacecraft.

“It’s a little difficult to predict the future,” Gerstenmaier said about NASA”s next course. “By February there should be some policy known and some direction. We are preparing for all eventualities.”

NASA’s top bosses have no fear admitting they’re getting misty eyed at the end of an era – even as they were sending Atlantis into orbit.

“We were talking in the firing room [where the launch is controlled] today,” revealed Mike Leinbach, Launch Director. “It is starting to hit home [that this is coming to an end].”

Space Shuttles, it seems, have the potential to develop their own personalities.

“When we lost Columbia [in 2003] it was almost like losing a family member,” Leinbach added.

The end of the program?

It’s like kicking the kids out of home.

“This is a special time in history,” said Gerstenmaier. “You have to see it and feel it.”

The NASA boss wasn’t just talking about witnessing one of the five remaining launches close up but he could well have been.

From a distance of 4.8 kilometers (the closest vantage point for all but eight rescue workers on standby 1.5 kilometers from the launch pad) the launch of Atlantis inspired tension, drama, and awe.

And for many, the misty eyes weren’t kicked off by dust.

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