A Shuttle Veteran Celebrates Her Spacecraft

Marsha Ivins, who bet her life on the shuttle Atlantis, pays the retired ship a visit

  • Share
  • Read Later

I’d been off the planet for 13 days—12 days, 20 hours, 20 minutes and 4 seconds to be precise—when the space shuttle Atlantis touched down on runway 22 at Edwards Air Force Base in California on February 20, 2001. It was the 102nd mission in the Space Shuttle program, and the 23rd for Atlantis. It was my fifth and final space flight and I knew going into it that it would be my last. I’d had a good run, as they say: 5 flights in 11 years, with a little bit of everything—satellite deployment and retrieval, a visit to Russia’s Mir space station and now an assembly flight to the International Space Station, joining the first station crew on board.

Actually, it was more than a good run, it was a pretty incredible run, and three of my five flights had been aboard this same ship that had once again brought me safely home. Walking off the orbiter I was proud to have been part of this mission, this program and this agency. As I stepped through the hatch, I turned and kissed Atlantis, to the surprise of the ground support folks. After all you are not supposed to touch the tiles, much less put your lips on them. But I didn’t know any other way to say thank you to the spacecraft and, well, to everything and everyone around it.

At that moment I could never have imagined the mournful days to come: the horror of the Columbia accident still two years away; the indefensible cancellation of the Constellation program—which would have returned humans to the moon and produced a new generation of heavy-lift booster; and the ambling, unfocused human spaceflight program that would replace it, a program so poorly defined that it amounts to no real program at all. Had I known all that back then, I would have put my arms around Atlantis if I could have figured out a way.

(PHOTOS: Space Shuttle Endeavor Journeys Through Los Angeles)

Here we are a decade later, and this never-imagined future has become a heartbreaking reality. We bear painful witness to the erosion of the capability and the spirit that let us put the first human footprint on the moon and defiantly welcomed the challenge of space exploration. Today NASA’s “year in review” in human spaceflight shows the ferry flights of the remaining Orbiters to their homes in museums around the country. And that’s it. So it was with great trepidation that I accepted the invitation, as a former Atlantis crew member, to participate in the opening ceremonies for the “Space Shuttle Atlantis Celebration” June 28-29 at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s complex, when Atlantis would be unveiled in its new $100 million facility.

After a total of 33 missions and 126 million miles flown between 1985 and 2011, including the one that marked the end of the 30- year Space Shuttle program, Atlantis certainly deserved the tribute. So I expected great hoopla and fanfare. I expected too to feel melancholy for the end of a 30 year program in human spaceflight and angry at no foreseeable future. I expected a memorial. What I did not expect was for it to be…right.

The multiscreen surround sound movie show that is the entrance to the exhibit ends with the screen fading to transparent, though an image of an Orbiter—its payload bay doors open, its robotic arm extended, flying towards you as you could only ever see it from space—is still visible. And then the screen rises to reveal Atlantis herself.

(MORE: Beijing We Have a Space Program)

The gut punch of emotion I experienced is impossible to convey using mere words. The orbiter, suspended from the ceiling, seemed to be flying free—graceful and elegant in its impossibility, and its reality.

Looking at the spacecraft, I felt a visceral wave of memory—of people loved, of people lost, of days spent inside the vehicle off the planet, of years spent in and around the program, helping to support other shuttle flights, of a career devoted to human spaceflight. I felt the presence of all the people whose labors of love now hung motionless before me.

There was no more hardworking, dedicated, fiercely proud team than the one at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The men and women who processed the shuttles did their work with a devotion and a passion that is probably unheard of anywhere else. We the crew may have been the face of the missions, but these people were the heart. And this display is a testament and an homage to that workforce.

(MORE: After Shuttle, Boom Times for NASA Innovation?)

The building that is now home to Atlantis is full of stories, history, hardware and lots of hands-on interactive stations. The pictures are of the people who worked on the shuttles. The stories are their stories and the interactive stations are all narrated by NASA engineers, not actors, not artificial voices. Real people explaining the science and engineering of real spaceflight in the kind of how-cool-is-that! way that only people who love their work can share. Unlike most museum displays that are about what they have done, this one is about what we as a team and a nation have done.

And at the center of it all is a real spaceship—an exhibit that doesn’t just honor the life of the vehicle, but that salutes the hearts and souls of the people who made it work. May we live up to your memory. All hail Atlantis.

(Marsha Ivins is a retired astronaut and a veteran of five shuttle missions, with a total of 1,318 hours—or 55 days—in space)

(FROM THE ARCHIVES: Fixing NASA, Time, June 9, 1986)


Such a pity that Ivins opens her article by bashing the President for canceling a program that was already underfunded and behind schedule, thanks to his predecessor.

Instead of parroting Republican talking points, perhaps Ivins should put her energy and talents behind an effort to revitalize public interest in manned spaceflight.  Which is what the Atlantis exhibit is supposed to be about.


@MarkCleary I agree with you 100%. The republicans had the White House and Congress and underfunded NASA while literally dumping billions of dollars in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Also, would Ms. Ivins really want to go into orbit on the "stick", the solid fuel launcher NASA wanted to put the Orion capsule on?

I don't agree with President Obama's vision for manned space exploration but he is never going to get a decent budget for NASA passed without strong public support and it's not there.  


lets face it. the shuttle program was the wrong direction to go. it was incredibly costly with practically no retun on investment. And now we, the american taxpayers are stuck footing the bill for that colssle waste of money called the International Space Station.


@richard.m.spalding.jr  Obviously with your spelling and lack of appreciation for what the shuttle and space station have done, and represent, we should have spent that money instead on education for whatever school system you went to?  The amount spent on space is tiny compared to weapons, corporate welfare, poor people welfare, and on and on.  You recommend what?  Are you a tea partier?  You go for that bloated military industrial complex?  One of the things we have in a complex society is that not every voter will feel that their taxes and proportion of the debt is wisely spent.  Mature intelligent voters understand however that investments in technology do not have immediate returns.   Please point to me a good return on investment for anything the government has done.   I guess when your children are no longer in school you probably won't want to pay for local education too.   I just don't understand folks like you but you certainly are well represented in the House of Representatives right now.



President Reagan's administration did try to develop a affordable replacement for the Space Shuttle, the X-30 National Aerospace Plane but it was cancelled in the early 1990's before the prototype was built. You also have things like Direct 2.0 which used parts of the Space Shuttle for a heavy launcher and the Dream Chaser which was also a cancelled NASA design. Also don't forget the X-37B, another cancelled NASA design. It's a unmanned winged orbiter that the US Air Force took over from NASA and launched several times and one has been in orbit for nearly a year now. There is a proposed X-37C variant that could carry a crew to orbit.

There were plenty of options for replacing the shuttle before the Columbia accident but Congress and the White House always seemed to find other things to spend money on, mainly wars. 

Read more: http://science.time.com/2013/07/10/a-shuttle-veteran-celebrates-her-spacecraft/#ixzz2Yn3UdzEJ


It is heart breaking, as the author says, to see Nasa reduced to unmanned missions and renting seats from the Russians to the space station.   As far fetched as a earth killing meteor could be, wouldn't that be the saddest time in our history to realize that instead of continuing to develop space technology that could save us we instead chose to use time and money on wars with nations that didn't even cause us a real threat?


I worked with Marsha for 4 or more years.  We used to pack the stuff going to the space station.  Socks, food, tools, everything they would need.  She would look at me with that look that says, "This isn't right."  I had a procedure that was called "Crew Preference"  and this gave me the ability to correct anything that wasn't right.  One time there was a piece of Russian hardware that NASA, by contract, couldn't touch.  I could, I fixed it.  Many times Marsha right there suggesting how we should fix it.  Constantly inspecting, constantly looking out for her fellow astronauts.  I have the greatest respect for her.