Ticket pic of the week: Atlantis is off, and space shuttle program is up in smoke
Here's all that's left of Friday's last launch of an American space shuttle: the profound trail of smoke pointing toward the heavens moments after Atlantis roared through.
The nearly 5-million-pound combination of rockets, science, orbiter and maybe 750 pounds of humans departed the Kennedy Space Center three minutes late Friday, but everything worked well.
And 8.5 minutes later, for the 33rd time, Atlantis blasted into orbit at 17,500 miles an hour. Which is 17,494 miles an hour better than the earthbound crowds were doing heading for home after the final space spectacle.
It was the 135th launch and in about two weeks will be the 133rd landing when the orbiter returns from its delivery and research work at the International Space Station. The two craft rendezvous in orbit Sunday morning.
The thunderous launch prompted cheers and tears among the nearly 1 million witnesses who flocked to Florida's eastern coast Friday morning.
To see such a piece of fine, powerful machinery work right before your eyes is amazing. The combination of sound and heat sensations, even three miles away, is moving. The burn beneath the solid fuel rockets is the brightest yellow ever.
And it was the official end of the space shuttle program after 30 closely-chronicled years of triumphs and tragedies. Thousands of highly-skilled space center workers are being let go. Another wave departs early next month.
The huge Vehicle Assembly Building where 200-plus foot rockets were built and then driven to the pad for so many years is totally void now, awaiting a new mission or demolition to save $12 million in annual maintenance costs.
The immense structure now contains a memory wall of space workers' signatures, like handwritten gravestones to productive careers no longer needed. As the work force melts away, including the corps of astronauts, NASA officials say all the correct , hopeful, optimistic things about new adventures and missions under President Obama's command.
But other than an unexciting reach for the asteroids, few seem able to define what that Real Good Talker has in mind, other than not doing in space what President Bush planned. And for some years into the future, astronauts of the once-pioneering nation that landed on the moon will be renting Russian Soyuz seats to get into space.
For almost two generations, Americans have heard the familiar voices of the manned space mission controllers with their cool minds and clipped lingo. "Atlantis, Houston. Go for throttle up." And the eloquent reply is, "Houston, copy."
These professionals spend months practicing for one workshift. They make statues look excited. And they would never say something like "three-letter acronym" when "TLA" would suffice.
Yet even these cool hands were touched Friday. Some came out to Saturn Causeway to wave the Atlantis crew off as it drovce to Pad 39A.
The control room geeks hung around the launch room much longer than necessary after its last use Friday. They too seemed reluctant to turn off the lights and lock the door on the 30-year shuttle era, taking photos, shaking countless hands and re-sharing professional tales and legends.
"Houston, we have a problem."
When Armageddon comes, we suspect, these guys will call it a significant anomaly.
-- Andrew Malcolm
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Photos: Andrew Malcolm / Los Angeles Times; (top, Atlantis' departure trail, middle the employee signature wall at Kennedy Space Center, bottom, the vast Vehicle Assembly Building, now empty and deserted).