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West Virginians share memories of space program

If all goes according to plan, the space shuttle Atlantis will leave Earth just before noon today to begin its 12-day mission at the International Space Station.

The shuttle will return to the Kennedy Space Center July 20, marking the end of the United States' 30-year-old shuttle program.

Beckley native and former astronaut Jon McBride isn't flying on the mission, but he's still putting in long hours getting ready. He's the vice president of the space center's visitors complex.

 "This is a big day. We're expecting 18,000 people on the visitors complex tomorrow," he said.

It's a bittersweet occasion for McBride.

"This isn't like seeing my child graduate from college; it's like sending my child overseas to work and I may not see them again," he said. "It's kind of sad. A lot of us feel we could have flown the shuttle a little while longer."

Americans will rely on Russian spaceflights to get to the International Space Station until NASA develops a new space vehicle. McBride has many good friends in Russia's cosmonaut corps, "but I hate to see us depending on them for the next three to five years."

"They're even wondering why we're doing this," he said.

McBride, 67, was in NASA's first class of shuttle astronauts, chosen from 100,000 candidates.

"I was blessed to have been chosen in that first class," he said. "It even made it better being the first Mountaineer."

He flew his first and only mission in 1984, piloting the Challenger space shuttle into orbit. He spent 197 hours in space.

"It's the best job in the world. If you take all the good feelings you've had in your life and combine them, that's what you get," he said. "You can't really explain it."

McBride was slated to fly two more missions on Challenger, but those were canceled after the shuttle exploded just after takeoff in 1986.

He was appointed NASA's assistant administrator for congressional relations in 1987 and spent three years working with lawmakers. During his time on Capitol Hill, McBride said NASA accounted for 1.1 percent of the nation's budget.

"Now we're 0.6 of 1 percent," he said. "All I'm hearing is glum and gloom from Congress, that they're going to cut us even worse than we thought."

Changing priorities

"You can't blame it on one president or one party or one house of Congress. It's just priorities in Washington, D.C. The space program doesn't enjoy the priorities it had before," McBride said.

He said lawmakers shouldn't view NASA's shuttle program as just another government expenditure.

"It's an investment. And it's the only place in government that you do get a positive return," he said.

He said President Kennedy's push to get a man on the moon by 1969 held the nation together through one of its toughest decades.

"It ignited excitement in every corner of this country. Everybody was an American then, and we wanted to see a man walk on the moon by the end of the 1960s," he said. "We were on a roll for 10, 20, 30 years."

McBride said he had hoped President Obama would make a "Kennedy-esque" announcement when he visited the space center in April. No such luck.

NASA isn't working on a replacement for the space shuttle at the moment, he said.

"Private industry is stepping up to help. There's no problem with that. But don't think that will be free. You can't do spaceflight and space travel on the cheap. Or you're going to hurt somebody," he said.

Shutting off an avenue

Retired Kanawha assistant superintendent Melanie Vickers is spending time in Florida with her parents this week and hopes to see Atlantis launch today.

"I've been following the NASA website. It's a 30 percent go because of weather complications," she told the Daily Mail Thursday.

Vickers was born in West Virginia but raised in Miami. A longtime space travel fan, she still has a front-page clipping detailing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's first steps on the moon.

She once had a shot at spaceflight.

She was among 112 teachers nationwide vying for a chance to ride the Challenger space shuttle in 1984. She was working at Watts Elementary on Jan. 28, 1986 when the shuttle exploded just after takeoff and killed its seven crew members.

Onboard was Christine McAuliffe, an English teacher from Texas, chosen to be the first civilian in space. Vickers and McAuliffe had become friends through the Teacher in Space program.

Although she's excited to see the final space shuttle launch, Vickers also said it will be a bittersweet occasion.

"I'm thinking and feeling some pretty sad thoughts. I don't understand the rationale behind disbanding the program. It doesn't make sense to me," she said. "I think other countries will continue, but why in the world would we ever make a decision to become a second-rate science and math country?"

Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in September 1958, almost a year after the Russians launched their Sputnik satellite. The law provided millions of dollars to improve science, math and foreign language instruction in U.S. schools.

"Reading and writing are critical, but when you take away science and technology? We'll never take away hope and drive and the love kids have for discovery, but I think we have shut off an avenue that kids have always dreamed about," Vickers said.

A missing piece

Vickers said she's skeptical that private industry will be able to replace NASA in sending humans to space. She's also critical of the agency's robots-only approach to space exploration.

NASA has said it would rely on space probes to do the majority of its research on other planets.

"Without human involvement, there's going to be a tragic piece that's missing," she said.

She compares it to the classroom: Students can have all the computers and interactive whiteboards and DVDs they want. But without a human in the classroom, it's all useless.

"That's not teaching. Those are tools. You have to have a human being to carry that across to other human beings," she said.

As of Thursday afternoon, NASA experts said there was a "30 percent chance of favorable weather" for an 11:26 a.m. Atlantis liftoff today, according to a brief posted on the agency's homepage.

The Atlantis crew is headed to space to re-supply the International Space Station. The unusually small crew will spend 12 days in space.

While most shuttles send up seven or eight astronauts, only four will ride on Atlantis' final flight: Chris Ferguson, 49, of Philadelphia, Pa., Doug Hurley, 44, of Apalachin, N.Y., Sandra Magnus, 42, of Belleville, Ill. and Rex Walheim, 40, of San Carlos, Calif.

NASA has a good reason for using the smaller crew. With no space shuttles left in its fleet, Atlantis astronauts would have to catch rides with Russian cosmonauts and return to earth one at a time if their spacecraft were to become disabled. 

The first space shuttle mission launched in April 1981. Since then, the five shuttles —  Atlantis, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Endeavour — have made 134 trips to space.

Columbia, the first space shuttle to launch, broke apart during reentry in 2003, claiming the lives of its seven crew members. Those deaths were the first since the 1986 Challenger explosion.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymail.com.


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