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Space fans gather at Chabot Space and Science Center to watch last shuttle launch

on July 8, 2011

The patch on John Tulloch’s black hat has the insignia from the final mission of the Discovery space shuttle—a stitched picture of a shuttle blasting off into the stars, with a tail of red flames following, against a dark blue half-globe in the background. He’s wearing a black polo shirt like the ones worn by NASA mission control operators in Houston, the pin on his collar is for the current mission, and the blue astronaut suit his three-year old son is wearing is one of two the kid owns (the orange one is at home).

“He loves it,” Tulloch said of his son, adding with a smile, “I like to think I haven’t forced it upon him, but I have.”

Tulloch, his wife and two kids were among the approximately  200 people who gathered in front of a 30-foot screen at the Chabot Space and Science Center in the Oakland hills this morning to watch the final launch of NASA’s space shuttle program. The space shuttle Atlantis launched at approximately 8:30 Pacific Time this morning, marking the 135th space shuttle mission in 30 years.

Tulloch’s watched the past 20 NASA Space Shuttle launches—mostly on the computer, once in person last year—so he certainly wasn’t going to miss the last mission. In fact, he admitted, he was sort of hoping bad weather would put off the launch until later in the weekend so he wouldn’t have to say goodbye now. “I’m sad because it’s the only space program I’ve ever known,” said Tulloch, who lives in Oakland, “but I’m hopeful because it will allow us to focus NASA’s efforts on above-Earth orbit.”

The audience at the Science Center was mostly made up of young families, like the Tullochs, who got their kids up early to see the historic flight. Today’s launch was indeed briefly in doubt because of bad weather at Cape Canaveral, and groans went up from the audience when a technical glitch briefly stopped the countdown at 31 seconds. It quickly resumed, however, to cheers, and many joined in to count down the final ten seconds.

“That added some drama, a little excitement,” said Ben Burris, a staff astronomer at the Science Center who hosted the viewing and answered questions from science fans afterwards.

Michelle Gorthy of Oakland brought her two kids, ages 4 and 7, to watch the launch. She said she teared up a little when the space shuttle took off, and she looked over and saw the person next to her also had tears in their eyes. “It’s pretty special,” she said. “I wanted my kids to be able to see it. They’re a little crushed they may not be able to go into space down the road.”

Turning to her 4-year-old son, Nico, Gorthy asked, “What did you think?”

“Awesome,” he said.


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