Like dozens of former astronauts, Russell "Rusty" Schweickart today will be at Cape Canaveral, Fla., for the scheduled final launch of the space shuttle.
It's a historic moment, said Schweickart, the first man to make an untethered spacewalk and the first to fly a lunar module in space. But the 75-year-old Sonoma resident is unlikely to get misty-eyed witnessing the shuttle era's end.
For him, the spacecraft is a vehicle whose time has come and gone.
"It's been a great truck," he said by phone from Cape Canaveral. "But it's time for it to pass into history and to move on to the next thing."
Other luminaries from the early days of the space program aren't nearly as sanguine as the final liftoff approaches. Today's launch is slated for 8:36 a.m PDT, although it could be postponed because of rain.
Neil Armstrong, the first moonwalker; John Glenn, first American in orbit; Chris Kraft, Mission Control founder; and Robert Crippen, first shuttle pilot; are among prominent critics of the decision to mothball the shuttle fleet. The cancellation was first approved by President George W. Bush.
Some believe the U.S. is ceding space to emerging powers such as China, leaving itself unprepared for any emergency requiring a quick return to orbit.
But Schweickart embraces NASA's vision of letting private companies take over the increasingly utilitarian role of hauling astronauts and cargo, freeing the agency to focus on bigger missions such as deep-space trips to Mars and to asteroids.
"That's an excellent shift," said Schweickart, a leader in the quest to track asteroids with the potential to devastate the planet. "The government should not be competing with private industry."
He likened the end of the era to the conclusion of the Apollo program in 1975, which was followed by a six-year gap before the first shuttle launch, although during that period the shuttle program was much more advanced than any manned project NASA has now.
"A lot of people seem to think this is the end of manned space flight," he said. "And that is absolutely wrong."
Atlantis is bound for the International Space Station with a year's worth of provisions to keep the orbiting outpost well-stocked in case of delays in getting commercial cargo hauls started. The first privately operated supply run — by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. — is tentatively scheduled for late this year.
NASA has until Sunday, possibly Monday, to get Atlantis and its four astronauts in orbit. Otherwise, the spacecraft will remain grounded until the following weekend because of an Air Force rocket launch that takes priority.
Rain or shine, hundreds of thousands of people are expected to jam the area for the launch. Some estimates put the crowd at close to 1 million, including numerous veterans of the program's 135 missions.
"It's a sad time for me, obviously," said Crippen, the first shuttle pilot on the Columbia in 1981. "But it's also a time when I feel pride. I'm proud of what the shuttle has done. You've got to get it back down on the ground safely. So when we finally get &‘wheels stop,' it will be an emotional moment for me."
Schweickart, who logged 241 hours in orbit as an Apollo astronaut, will be watching without any desire to once again be on the launch pad. Space is a young person's game, he said. As with the space shuttle, he's not about longing for the past.