Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The great and the good

Perhaps it has finally dawned on America that the age of its ‘remarkable flying machine’ is rapidly drawing to a conclusion.

If all goes to plan, this week’s launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour will be the penultimate in all time history - and it will be a bittersweet occasion for many.

For the thousands of Americans who have worked on the Shuttle programme for three decades or more it brings home the stark reality that, from this summer, many will find themselves out of work.

The layoffs by NASA and its contractors have already bitten deep. The spaceport city of Titusville, a stone’s throw from Kennedy Space Center itself, was a boomtown founded on American’s human spaceflight endeavours.

But its glory days have gone. Workers have already left in their droves and the once thriving restaurants and businesses are heading for lean times.

This week, as the great and the good gather at Kennedy Space Center to witness a final launch for themselves, human interest stories abound.

It was good to see at the weekend that doctors have allowed Gabrielle Giffords, the US congress-woman who was shot in the head, to travel to Florida to see her astronaut husband’s Space Shuttle launch.

The trip will be the first for Ms Gifford since she was flown from Tuscon, Arizona, to Houston more than three months ago to recover after being shot in the head at a community event in her home state of Arizona.

Husband Mark Kelly proudly told US television that Ms Giffords will be able to witness the launch of Endeavour, scheduled for Friday afternoon, in person.

Ms Giffords has not been seen publicly since the shooting and will likely watch it from a private family viewing area.

Her shooting at a community outreach event back in January could have put in jeopardy the Shuttle mission. Kelly is commander and had he needed to spend longer at his wife’s bedside the flight would likely have been postponed.

Replacing the commander so close to a launch would have been unprecedented and, as there are no backup crews in training for such complex missions, a tricky dilemma for NASA.

President Barack Obama and his family are also planning to watch the launch, though it is unclear whether they will be alongside Ms Giffords or at a different location.

Even on the most routine of occasions, a Space Shuttle launch is an emotionally charged and tense affair.

The fact that this will be the last ever countdown for Endeavour and the penultimate flight of the near 30 year programme makes it all the more poignant.

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