Traditions don’t usually have an end point. This one does. For 30 years, since Columbia lifted off on April 12, 1982, people have lined up along Flagler County’s beaches, particularly in Flagler Beach, along the pier, on the bridge from the mainland and on balconies and dunes along State Road A1A. They’ve done so 133 times, and this morning did it for the 134th, and next-to-last time, as Space Shuttle Endeavour lifted off at 9 a.m. and for the last time.
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It looked like a perfect launch, at least from this vantage point. The shuttle’s orange fireball drew its white magic-marker arc against a blue as limpid above as it was below, ocean and sky bracketing the launch in their own kind of flawlessness.
“Looks just like I expected it to. Looks just like last time,” Carol Fisher, the owner of Flagler Beach’s Beachhouse Beanery, said as she was climbing up from the sands onto the boardwalk, just after the launch. You’d expect she’d seen launches by the dozen, but “I haven’t seen that many. I’ve seen quite a few though. I will tell you what I thought: I always, when I’m watching it go up, and it keeps going, and it does just what it’s supposed to do, I always remember when the one exploded, and how all those people must have felt when they watched that smoke go all over, crazy, and to keep looking at it and thinking, what’s wrong, that’s not right, it’s not supposed to do that, and every single time when I watch it and it does what it’s supposed to do, I’m just thankful that we don’t have another tragedy.”
Fisher has a special connection with the Endeavour. That’s the space shuttle that was named by the students of Georgia’s Tallulah Falls School after a competition involving 6,000 schools. The first President Bush had wanted students to have the honor of naming Endeavour because it was the replacement shuttle for the Challenger, which exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, on January 28, 1986, with Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire, among the crew of seven. McAulifffe was the first non-astronaut on a space shuttle mission. After the Tallulah students won the contest, they were invited to the White House, then to watch Endeavour take its maiden flight in May 1992.
Tallulah has been sending students on a spring trip to Florida ever since. The students were there, at the Beanery, four weeks ago, grabbing bagged breakfasts and taking them to the boardwalk to devour them on the benches that, this morning, were used as vantage points for a last look at Endeavour. The shuttle is actually on borrowed time: it was supposed to be decommissioned last year, and to fly the very final mission of the shuttle program as well. But for a variety of reasons–including politics and extending employment on Florida’s Space Coast–the shuttle program was extended, and yet another mission added: Atlantis will fly the last one later this spring or early summer.
Endeavour’s six-man crew has a little extra star power. It’s led by Capt. Mark E. Kelly, husband of Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman now recovering from a severe wound in a shooting in January. The 16-day mission is to deliver spare parts and other equipment to the International Space Station, itself approaching its end-of-life.
Memories of the Challenger are, inevitably, on many people’s mind when they watch a shuttle launch. It’s one of those markers of memory and history, as it is for Ann Webb, a New Jersey native in Palm Coast for the past 31 years. She was working in Daytona Beach in January 1986, and had gone out to watch the launch. “We went out, and immediately we knew something was wrong,” Webb said, even as Endeavour’s launch sequence was sparking to life. “We could tell by the way it looked, that something was wrong. When we got back inside we found out what had happened. It was horrible. Just horrible. Even thinking about it, everyone was in tears. Every time I see them go off, you pray.”
Isabelle Vigil, 13, has been alive less than half the lifespan of the shuttle program. She was born in 1998, when Endeavour was already 6 years old. Her first shuttle launch was on a July 4. She’s seen many since, including night launches. She was there with her mother, on the sands of Flagler Beach–she’s home-schooled through Florida Virtual School–taking in the beauty of the launch. “Plus it’s sad that it’s the end,” Beth Christopher, Isabelle’s mother, said.
As they spoke, the air rumbled and shook, a cloudless roll of thunder. “That’s our favorite part, that’s what we were waiting for,” Christopher said. “The boom,” as Isabelle put it: Endeavour’s sonic boom, a distant greeting that, in Flagler Beach at least, sounded like one last poignant, flustered heartbeat from space.