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Ex-astronaut reflects on shuttle's final flight

  • The space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center Friday, July 8, 2011, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Atlantis is the 135th and final space shuttle launch for NASA. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

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.

Shuttle Launch Photos By Petaluma Man

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"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.


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