On May 22, 2014, I met a legend - Atlantis Space Shuttle Orbiter. Atlantis, or OV-104, was the fourth shuttle orbiter produced by Rockwell. She started her operational flight career on October 3, 1985, launching the STS-51-J mission, carrying a U.S. Department of Defense satellite into orbit. Her final flight, STS-135, concluded the American Space Shuttle Transport System Program. On July 21, 2011, I watched her land after that final, conclusive mission. I felt a lump in my throat as the program ended once our bird’s landing gear grazed the tarmac of the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
After Atlantis’s final flight, I was filled with mixed emotions, saddened that this program that I’d grown up with was actually over. But these feelings were purely fueled by nostalgia. We mustn’t dwell on frustration with regards to the passing of the Shuttle Program, like so many of us do. Instead, it may be a better use of energy to talk about the amazing things are on the horizon of space travel, like NASA’s SLS and the work of SpaceX.
Our space shuttle orbiters cease to fly, but they continue to fill what I believe to be an equally important role, inspiring millions of museum visitors all over the country. And inspire, they do. Frankly, I may be biased, but when I first walked into the room that houses Atlantis, and finally laid eyes upon this giant spacecraft that I’d been seeing on TV my whole life, I cried. The sheer size and enormity of it all is overwhelming. Not just presence of the structure of the spacecraft, but knowing the distance that she traveled, 126,000,000 miles, always safely returning her crew back home to our fragile Planet Earth. If causing visitors to feel these emotions doesn’t help the field of space exploration, nothing will.
This exhibit causes individuals to take ownership of Atlantis, and rightfully so. When you visit a shuttle orbiter, know that as an American taxpayer, she truly belongs to you. No, scratch that. As a member of the human race, she was created for you, to explore the edge between what is known and unknown, which is a practice we call “science”, all to benefit you. Yes, you. We may learn the most about ourselves once we breach the bonds of gravity, but we must remember that we’re all truly in this journey together here on Planet Earth, and this is our bird, and our continued space exploration.