A Shuttle Veteran Celebrates Her Spacecraft

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)