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Space shuttle Atlantis, STS-135, is lifted to the vertical position, Wednesday, May 18, 2011, inside the Vehicle Assembly Building later to be attached to the External Fuel Tank. Shuttle Atlantis is the last orbiter to fly as the shuttle fleet retires. (Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)
Sunday, May 29, 2011

Space fan watches as the shuttle era ends

David Brooks

EDITOR’S NOTE: Because The Telegraph doesn’t publish on Memorial Day, David Brooks’ Granite Geek column is running in today’s paper.

The space shuttle has never grabbed the public imagination the way the Apollo space program did, but some folks will still be misty-eyed as this winged orbiter ends its 40-year run this summer.

Nashua’s Aaron Cunningham will be among them. And you can join in online.

Granite Geek readers met Cunningham last year, when he was one of 150 followers of NASA’s Twitter feed who were chosen to go to Cape Canaveral to get a close-up view of the last launch of the shuttle Atlantis.

“I watched a shuttle launch from the NASA causeway and stood next to people and watched them break down and cry because it’s an amazing moment emotionally,” said Cunningham, who describes himself as “a space geek since I was 5.”

On Monday , Cunningham is flying down again. He’s going to watch not a launch, but an equally important – if far less thrilling – event: the very last shuttle rollout.

Rollout begins after the shuttle has been attached to the orange external propellant tank and the two solid rocket boosters inside the monstrous Vehicle Assembly Building. The 4 million pound contraption is driven at the whopping speed of 0.9 mph to the launchpad, which is 3.5 miles away because that distance protects the assembly building if something disastrous happens during countdown.

As I said, it isn’t thrilling. But it is momentous, because it’s the beginning of the end of a long chapter in humanity’s spacefaring history. The final launch is slated for July 8.

Among the space fans and NASA employees who will be watching the rollout, Cunningham said, “There’s going to be a lot of emotion – some crying, I expect.”

Cunningham’s interest in spaceflight is reflected on his long-running blog, which includes historical tidbits, scientific background pieces and streaming media of satellite simulations and launch movies.

That’s why The Telegraph agreed to give him media credentials for the rollout, in return for his generating a whole bunch of online stuff that we’ll be hosting.

He’s going to be posting comments and links, Tweets, photos and, it’s hoped, video (assuming the smartphone software works the way it’s supposed to), with some interviews of NASA folks he has met over the years. It will be hosted on a special page within The Telegraph Web site (www.nashuatelegraph.com/topics/shuttlerollout).

You can also add comments and questions there, or by tweeting him. He’ll be using the hash tag #Atlantis135.

If that last sentence is incomprehensible to you, don’t worry – it’s social-media minutia. But Cunningham thinks it’s actually important to the space-fan community, because it gives them a voice and a way to fight perceptions that space is too expensive to be worth it.

The shuttle’s end is the clearest sign of this problem, because NASA hasn’t developed a replacement. The U.S. will soon have no direct way to put a person in orbit for the first time since John Glenn went up in 1962.

“The iPhone, laptops, mobile computing, social media – if they’d been around 10 years ago, even five years ago, I think we’d be having a much different conversation now,” Cunningham said. “There is a grass-roots push.”

The flip side of NASA’s stagnation is the possibility that private spaceflight might pick up the slack in suborbital or even low-Earth-orbital terms.

“Although there will be a gap in manned space flight, I think it’s not long before something happens,” he said, pointing to such things as the Lunar X Prize effort to get a privately financed probe launched clear to the moon.

“I’m optimistic.”

But, this week at least, he’s also a little sad.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.