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Last space shuttle launch marks the end of an era

NASA’s space shuttle program has been in the collective consciousness for as long as I’ve been paying attention to the news. Seeing the last launch this morning brought up a lot of memories. I remember the space shuttle poster that hung on my bedroom door all through high school. I remember the 18-inch plastic model of the shuttle that I spent weeks assembling and painting. I displayed it proudly on the shelf right next to my poster.

Scott Audette / Reuters

The space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on July 8, 2011. The 12-day mission to the International Space Station is the last mission in the space shuttle program.

Scott Audette / Reuters

Spectators watch Atlantis lift off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on Friday.

I watched the Enterprise shuttle flight tests and then the first Columbia launch back in 1981. It was a teenage boy’s dream. After that, launches became relatively frequent, almost routine. Most people I knew didn’t notice or care when a shuttle launched. NASA seemed bulletproof.

A few years later I was watching a shuttle launch on an old TV in a college dorm lounge with a handful of other nerds when something went terribly wrong. The Challenger blew up! Other students gathered around the television as the explosion replayed over and over and over again. I sat in stunned silence, wiping tears away. Three days later President Ronald Reagan traveled to the Johnson Space Center and spoke at a memorial for the astronauts. I watched him on TV as he said, “Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short. But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain.” Those were good words for a nation and a college kid who’d just seen heroes fall.

Almost three years later, I was driving to a job I hated. I pulled into the employee parking lot, shut off the car and sat in the warm morning sun while listening to the relaunch of the shuttle program. I remember thinking that NASA was back, but my life had somehow slipped off the rails. I quit my job a couple of weeks later and returned to newspaper work.

More than a decade went by. During that time I got married, stumbled through grad school, had a couple of kids and found my way to a job at msnbc.com. Once again, shuttle missions had become almost routine. NASA seemed like it could do no wrong, but then Columbia was destroyed on re-entry. An early call from my boss and a frantic drive to work are part of the fabric of my shuttle memories. Publishing pictures of debris streaking across the skies of the United States was difficult.

Watching Atlantis blast off into a cloudy sky this morning, I can’t help but feel like some great cosmic wheel just moved. There will now be a time before and after NASA’s space shuttle program, and it makes me feel surprisingly sad.

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Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in what is NASA's final space shuttle mission.