I was just a high school student in Modesto when the space shuttle's first prototype was rolled out in 1976. It was an entirely new concept for NASA reusing five spacecraft to take 135 trips into space.
Watching the shuttle missions always made me wish I'd paid more attention in science classes. They always stirred strong emotions. I was disappointed when weather delayed a launch. I was stunned and heartbroken when the Challenger exploded in 1986, and I was captivated by each Hubble-related mission. So, it is no surprise that watching the final victory lap brought a lump to my throat.
On Sept. 21, I joined colleagues on the balcony of The Sacramento Bee to wait for the flyover of the Endeavour, the newest of the NASA shuttles to be built, as it headed for its final retirement home in Los Angeles. We could see people on rooftops all over the area waving to each other, waiting for the big moment when the Endeavour would finally arrive for its first and last trip to Northern California.
The conversations were often about space: Who remembers watching the moon landing in 1969? Who has seen the Hubble photo gallery on NASA's website? Is Pluto really a minor planet?
The Endeavour's last adventure was on the back of a Boeing 747, its cross-country journey a tribute to NASA workers and astronauts. The trip had already been dubbed "the ultimate piggyback ride," and we were all excited to see it on the Sacramento skyline. I cheered with the crowd when I first saw it appear in the distance, but found myself choking up as it got closer and closer.
It just seemed to float across the sky, chase plane in tow. A magnificent voyage for the end of an era.