‘Wheels Stop’: Saying Goodbye to the Space Shuttle Program

BY David Waters  July 22, 2011 at 1:49 PM EST

David Waters is a space reporter, videographer and a longtime resident of the “Space Coast” — the area of Florida around the Kennedy Space Center. He regularly works with NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien. In this 2008 photo, he is helping install an American flag into the payload bay of space shuttle Endeavour. Photo by United Space Alliance.

I set off before 3 a.m. Thursday headed to the Kennedy Space Center to watch America’s final space shuttle land. The four astronauts aboard shuttle Atlantis had already been up for hours. They awoke at 9:30 pm ET the night before to “God Bless America” as their “Reveille.”

As I drove, I thought about the shuttle, and I was struck by just how much of my life has been focused on it.

You could call me a shuttle-hugger. I’ve lived my entire life only miles from the Kennedy Space Center, specialized as a space reporter on television and online, and spent a year working as a spokesperson for United Space Alliance, the main contractor for shuttle operations.

Those 30 years of watching shuttles launch and working closely with the shuttle program were testaments to the fact that the program has lasted longer than any of the other spacecraft programs before: longer than NASA’s Mercury, Gemini or Apollo programs.

When I pulled into the Space Center, lines of media were cramming into buses headed to an observation area by the shuttle runway, called the Shuttle Landing Facility, or SLF. In my 14 years spent visiting Kennedy, I’d never seen so much interest in a landing.

We arrived at the SLF and staked out positions. Time seemed to go by quickly before Atlantis was told by mission control to fire the engines, which slows the ship enough to drop it through the atmosphere. Shortly before 5:30 a.m. ET, Atlantis entered Earth’s atmosphere. We all watched the NASA digital readout that showed the shuttle’s landing path. At 17,500 mph — that’s 5 miles per second — it covers a lot of ground quickly.

Three and a half minutes to landing, the twin sonic booms of the space shuttle blasted through the landing site, a sure sign the shuttle is nearby and about to be home. I made sure to get a shot of people around me jumping at the sound.

Anyone who has covered a night landing knows you only see the shuttle seconds before touchdown when it drops into the bright beams coming from the xenon lights at the end of the runway. With so many photographers around this time, getting an unobstructed view of the full runway was tricky. I knew many cameras would be pointed at the shuttle itself, so I opted to put my video camera on my shoulder and videotape instead the throngs of media in front of me.

As Atlantis dropped into view, photographers began to fire their shutters. The normally subdued media group cheered and whooped, and I was glad to have recorded that moment. The shuttle rolled out in front of us with its red, white and blue parachute deployed.

Then came the call. “Wheels stop.” The familiar words that astronauts hear from mission control when a mission is over. But this was different. “Wheels stop.” The space shuttle program had ended.

I had a rare opportunity to head to the runway after the landing to see all the workers marking the end of the program in their own special way.

Groups of technical workers and engineers stood in front of the shuttle and unfurled banners, proud of the work they had done. They hugged and shook hands. They took pictures of themselves in front of Atlantis.

One of my old United Space Alliance coworkers, Terry White, found me on the runway. He had worked on the shuttles since before the first launch in 1981. He told me it was his last day. For him, and for me, being there in that spot as the last shuttle touched down was a nice way to say goodbye to a beautiful machine.

Above right photo credit: On July 21, space shuttle Atlantis lands for the final time after 200 orbits of Earth and a journey of 5.2 million miles. NASA photo by Kim Shiflett