"It began with a roar, as if some beast were suddenly unchained to leap skyward. Then there was the fire and smoke that within seconds painted the sky from horizon to horizon as the orbiter rose skyward, finally vanishing into the clear blue sky."
That is how Mark Whittington describes witnessing a space shuttle launch.
"One year I was privileged to see the launch of a space shuttle, quite close at the Kennedy Space Center," Whittington, a space writer for the Yahoo! Contributor Network, remembers. "There is nothing quite like it on this Earth."
A shuttle's launch draws comparisons, he writes, to mankind's most impressive achievements: "I have seen the Sistine Chapel, the pyramids, and castles in England with my own eyes. Up with them in terms of beauty and the capacity to inspire awe is the launch of a space craft, filled with human beings, headed out to the High Frontier. What a marvel is Man that he can wrought such things!" Read more here.
The July 8 launch of Atlantis will be the 135th and last mission for NASA's venerable space shuttle program. Since Columbia's take-off on April 12, 1981, shuttles have 134 flown missions with many different goals -- delivering payloads, fixing the Hubble telescope and ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station. As the program ends, we asked readers, contributors and NASA veterans to share their memories.
Below is a selection of their stories.
[Your voice: If you have a personal connection to the shuttle program, we want to hear about it.Sign up with the Yahoo! Contributor Networkto share your stories. We'll add the best ones here.]
NASA engineering veteran Gray Fox recalls his most poignant memories working for the space program, notably his role in the investigation of the Columbia accident in 2003: "The nation lost seven astronauts when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up aerodynamically in the upper atmosphere. Our team, one of several, made a trip to the Kennedy Space Center to observe and study the debris collected from east Texas. The scene was sobering. Columbia, the jewel of the early program and after 28 flights, lay wasted in melted, fractured, and shredded pieces on the hanger floor, another indication of the unforgiving energy involved in flying this magnificent machine."
But not all his memories are sad: "I have always been a space nut and am lucky enough to have spent a career as an aerospace engineer at NASA. As a child, if you had told me that one day I would work with NASA and the heroes of space flight, I would have responded in wide-eyed incredulity. I recall an early business trip to the Kennedy Space Center where, in my giddiness, I marveled that they were really paying me to be here." Read more here.
R.L. Taylor was born on July 17, 1969, wrapped in a powder-blue blanket and handed to his mother. Just hours before, another seminal event occurred: Apollo 11 lifted off from Cape Canaveral. Three days later, men would land on the moon for the first time. Taylor writes: "I've always told people that I was born halfway to the moon. In fact, all of mankind was halfway to the moon that day. I spent my childhood peering up at the night skies, fervently dreaming of the time when I would be able to travel into space. I was filled with the certainty that those days were just around the corner. Between the ubiquitous promotion of the space program during the American bicentennial celebration and the release of the film "Star Wars," I was destined to a lifelong fascination with NASA and the space shuttle program." Read more here.
Space writer and NASA enthusiast Brad Sylvester has mixed emotions about the shuttle program's retirement. Logic dictates that it's time to say goodbye. But the awe will never vanish: "I remember the sense of wonder and excitement that I felt when a classmate in grammar school, knowing my interest in the space program, handed me the latest edition of Scholastic Magazine that featured and article about a planned reusable space shuttle in development by NASA. By the popular demand of thousands of "Star Trek" fans, the article said, NASA had to change the name of one of the early test shuttles to Enterprise."
As it is for many space hobbyists, memories of NASA's tragedies are unavoidable. Sylvester writes, "I also remember watching the Space Shuttle Challenger as it seemed to disappear in forked trail of smoke. As I watched, I hoped that the smoke was caused by the jettisoning of malfunctioning booster rockets and that the shuttle itself would reappear and perhaps proceed to an emergency landing. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case and seven brave souls lost their lives on Jan. 28, 1986.
"The return to space after Challenger demonstrated that we, as a nation, could overcome adversity, learn from our mistakes, and push forward toward our goals. It also taught me that where much is at stake, one must use an abundance of care to make sure that things go the way one expects them to go." Read more here.
Anokel Xaphid and the shuttle were born the same year -- 1981. As they grew up together, the shuttle inspired Xaphid to follow his dreams, never give up and look to better times ahead: "As we close this 30-year chapter of the shuttle program with the final Space Shuttle Atlantis lift-off of July 8 and reentry on July 20, I am slightly saddened by the end of the shuttle program. But by no means does this mark the end of spaceflight and exploration. This is only the beginning of a brand new era in space filled with commercial flights with spacecraft like Virgin Galactic, spawning a whole new space age filled with all kinds of spacecraft and exploration to come. The space shuttle program has inspired me with hope that we will advance humankind to other solar systems and land on new unexplored worlds just like Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas." Read more here.
The space shuttle program blossomed into a hobby for Matthew Murphy. In 2000, his parents rewarded his "obsession" with a trip to watch a space shuttle launch: "I was introduced to the space shuttle on Dec. 5, 1997. We had recently moved to the Sunshine State. That morning, Columbia landed in Florida while I was a third-grader, still in bed. I didn't hear it, but it woke me up.
"Space travel was new to me. I found the concept of a space plane and its thunderous return intriguing, and I became obsessed with it. Six months later, my parents surprised me with a trip to Titusville to watch Discovery liftoff on mission STS-92. It was spectacular. I still recall the long, loud rumble from that launch."
With one exception, he watched every post-Columbia launch from his back yard, snapping photos of the launches and re-entries and even constructing space shuttle models. (See a photo of his work.) Read more here.
NASA veteran Charles Phillips reflects on his career at Johnson Space Center and the shuttle program. For him, the shuttle built camaraderie and community: "What is a space shuttle? Is it a collection of parts? Is it a machine? No, it is a unique community of people from all over the world that came together to pioneer a new capability.
"For many people like me, their introduction to the space program was working at the Johnson Space Center, in the Mission Operations Directorate. In 1985, this was a growing organization with many types of missions -- commercial, Spacelab, military, and miscellaneous. I worked in the section that integrated military payloads onto the shuttle, we monitored and had some control over shuttle support to payload systems, and it was a tremendously exciting place to be." Read more here.
While growing up near Roswell, N.M. -- the famous site of an alleged alien crash-landing -- Derrick A Jasper's interest in the space program was tied to conspiracy theories: "On July 10, 1962, beams of the first live transatlantic telecast from Telstar 1 showed the average citizen applicable uses for satellites. Our parents argued endlessly regarding these flights. To them, they were nothing more than lies perpetrated by the government to gain more tax money. Nonetheless, they were mesmerized when viewing close-range photographs of the moon sent from US Ranger 7 on July 31, 1964. My father's take was, 'Ever since aliens landed in New Mexico, we've been out to find and conquer them.' "
Rumors of ET notwithstanding, spaceflight was a marvel for Jasper. He writes, "My brother and I were captivated as we laid before the black and white television, watching as our nation landed on the moon in 1969. When the space shuttle rolled out in January 1972, I was turning 8. My friends and I stared into the sea of stars waiting for alien ships to enter our atmosphere. President Richard Nixon was a god in our eyes. He was ruling a kingdom of space travelers. I dreamed of galaxies far away and was sure we'd grow up to travel the universe." Read more here.
Here is more shuttle-related content from the Yahoo! Contributor Network:
Below is a four-part interview with George Whitesides, the previous NASA chief of staff and current CEO of Virgin Galactic: