George Ware’s cigar stayed in its wrapper — just as it did more than 30 years ago when the space shuttle program took flight.
A retired aerospace engineer, Ware wasn’t ready to celebrate Friday as Atlantis rocketed away from Earth on the 135th and final launch of NASA’s most prolific spaceship.
“I’ll be glad to see it on the ground, parked,” he said from the Pearl Young Theater at Langley Research Center, where hundreds of people gathered to bid a bittersweet farewell to the shuttle.
Leading up to the late morning launch, there was doubt that Atlantis would fly. Thunderstorms near Cape Canaveral, Fla., threatened to put the historic flight on hold.
Tension mounted in the standing room only theater, where a large screen showed Atlantis upright on the launch pad. A hush fell over the darkened room 10 minutes prior to the scheduled liftoff.
“Oh, no!” a man in the crowd said as the clock paused at 31 seconds.
Cheers and whistles ensued as the countdown resumed moments later. Within seconds the rocket boosters attached to Atlantis sparked, thrusting the 4.5-million pound spaceship toward the sky.
It was soon miles above Earth on its way to the International Space Station, where the four astronauts onboard are expected to deliver food, fuel, spare parts and other supplies.
The mission, which is expected to end July 20, caps a 30-year run for the shuttle, a program marked by triumphs and marred by tragedies and unmet expectations.
NASA began planning the shuttle before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. At the time, President Richard Nixon envisioned NASA flying to space every other week aboard what would become the shuttle.
NASA researchers delivered on a promise to deliver a vehicle that took off like a rocket and landed like a plane. It carried heavy payloads, such as the Hubble telescope and parts needed for the space station, as well as the nation’s first female and black astronauts.
But it may be best known for two accidents — Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 — that killed 14 astronauts and forced the nation to rethink its space exploration goals.
Retired NASA researcher Wolf Elber was among dozens of Langley employees to investigate the O-ring seals that caused Challenger to disintegrate over the Atlantic Ocean. After 25 years, he was still nervous for Friday’s launch.
“There’s so many thousands of things that can wrong,” he said.
While nearly every launch went without incident, the cost of maintaining the shuttles — five were built — far exceeded NASA’s expectations. A University of Colorado researcher estimated the program’s cost in 2010 at $175 billion.
That helps explain why NASA decided to cancel the program. Still, many space enthusiasts bemoan that NASA no longer has a vehicle to take astronauts into space.
“It’s sad,” said Kenneth “Jim” Weilmuenster, a retired Langley researcher who worked in the shuttle program. “It’s a shame because there’s no replacement.”
President Barack Obama last year canceled shuttle’s successor, the Constellation program, an Apollo-like rocket system that was severely underfunded. NASA will rely on Russia to send astronauts to the space station while private companies compete to develop space taxis.
In a statement issued Friday, Obama said the move will allow NASA to focus on deep space exploration, possibly sending astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. But with the proliferation of robotics, such as the Mars rovers, some question whether astronauts are even necessary.
Ware, the retired engineer, is not among them. He believes there is no substitute for the experience of space travel.
That’s why he was happy to see Atlantis headed out of this world Friday. And, as he said, he’ll be even happier to see it return to Earth on July 20.
Asked if the occasion might prompt him to light up that old cigar, he quipped: “It wasn’t worth smoking back then.”