Godspeed, Atlantis

The flagpoles in the picture above are outside of the Payload Operations Control Center at Marshall Space Flight Center. There’s a row of several flagpoles — flying the U.S. flag, the NASA flag, the space station flag, flags for NASA’s international partner agencies. And then, there’s the flagpole at the end.

After I’d been working here for half a year, the flagpole on the end sat empty for two and a half years. Each of the orbiters has a flag, and the flagpole is used only to fly those flags when an orbiter is in space. Right now, the Atlantis flag is flying on the flagpole on the end.

Just days from now, that flag will be taken down. And will never fly again.

I’ve been debating what to say in this blog post. I watched the launch Friday, and wanted to write about it. But doing so requires addressing the elephant in the room. This is the final flight of the space shuttle Atlantis. Or, it’s not. There’s still talk of another flight of Atlantis next June, but the decision won’t be made until next month, after the current flight is over. Too late to pay respects to Atlantis timely to her last mission, if that’s what STS-132 is.

And doing it now is just being honest. When I watched Atlantis launch on Friday, it was very much on my mind that it could be for the last time.

Launch was an interesting experience. I went down and watched the last two in person, and had thought I might finish out the program that way. But my brother’s graduation precluded a Florida trip this past weekend, so I watched from work. And I was glad that’s how it worked out.

Seeing a launch in person is an amazing experience, and I recommend everyone go down for one of the last two (or three). But the way I saw it Friday really wasn’t so much a better or worse thing as an entirely different thing. Watching it on a big screen meant that you get to see detail that you just don’t from the Causeway at Kennedy. But the best part was watching it in a roomful of Marshall team members. For many of these people, this is their life’s work. It’s not simply powerful, it’s personal. And it’s an honor stand amongst them for that moment. I’ve said it before, but it’s a huge huge privilege to be even a tiny tiny part of this team. I’m blessed.

And it was a beautiful launch.

But the thing that made the biggest impression was just a tiny detail. They had small versions of the Atlantis flag decorating the tables. And those flags bear a weird association for me — my friend and coworker Heather received a flown Endeavour flag for a story she did about the student contest that named that orbiter. Since, obviously, Endeavour didn’t have a name when the naming contest started, it was the OV-105 naming project, referring to the Orbiter Vehicle designation. As a result, even though the flags have the names on them, when I see them, the number pops into my head instead. I see the flag at the top, and think not Atlantis, but OV-104.

I did a quick mental calculation — is that right? 104? Yeah, ’cause OV-103 is Discovery, and OV-102 is …

OV-102. That designation was used a lot seven years ago, after she was lost on re-entry over Texas. A good bit of the official investigation work referred to her by that officlal designation, instead of the better known name, Columbia.

OV-102 didn’t get to retire. Her career ended tragically and abruptly on February 1, 2003. And she wasn’t the first. OV-099 met an untimely end as well, on January 28, 1986.

Each of those flew for a last time. Not by choice, not in the way anyone would have wanted or dreamed. But utterly final nonetheless. And in the line of duty, doing what they were built for.

If STS-132 is in fact Atlantis’ last mission, she will be only the third orbiter to have a final flight. And unlike her sisters, it will be planned, it will be because she survived until the end.

“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”

Godspeed, Atlantis! Come home to us safely. As sad as it is to see your career come to an end, it is a far, far better rest that you go to than you have ever known.

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