An astronaut absent a space shuttle is sort of like a jockey without a horse or a cabby without a car — but the days of shiny spaceships shooting into orbit will soon be a thing of the past. On Friday, July 8, after thirty years and more than 130 missions, NASA's space shuttle program will launch its final shuttle, Atlantis, from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But those in the Bay Area wishing to experience the moment firsthand can come close during a live broadcast of the event at Chabot Space & Science Center's Tien MegaDome Theater (10000 Skyline Blvd., Oakland).
"For people who can't make it out to the actual launch it will be really cool to see," said Jonathan Braidman, a staff astronomer at Chabot who will be in attendance at the center's hemispherical, IMAX-style theater to emcee the historic event as it unfolds on seventy-foot domed screens. "I've heard people say that [shuttle launches] are almost like a spiritual experience in some ways — in that you're surrounded by people all extremely excited about the same thing and you can hear and feel it. We're going to try to create that experience for people here."
Braidman said the shuttle program, which has been the main avenue for carrying large pieces of equipment and building materials into space, is being retired due to both a lack of funding and the deterioration of the remaining 26-year-old shuttle. Two shuttles — the Challenger and the Columbia — were destroyed in mid-mission accidents, and the others in the program have already been relegated to display in various science centers. According to NASA's statistics, Space Shuttle Atlantis has traveled nearly 121 million miles, costing on average about $450 million per mission.
"If you look at pictures of the shuttle you can see all the places where it's been patched up and repaired," Braidman said. "How many cars do you see from 1980 that don't need constant repair? I'm not sure you would rely on one for your everyday transportation — much less if you were using it to bring expensive equipment and personnel into space."
But the discontinuation of NASA's final active space shuttle by no means signals an end to space exploration. The International Space Center and a number of satellites and probes continue to operate throughout space, and Russian-designed "Soyuz" space capsules can still shuttle astronauts to and from earth. But Braidman said the end of shuttle launchings still triggers a sentimental affinity for spaceships that for many Americans harks back to childhood.
"Everyone knows what the shuttle looks like," he said. "And nothing looks quite like it. It's like something you'd want to play with as a kid. So seeing that discontinued is kind of sad for me because it's an end to the romance of going into space."
If all goes as planned, the space shuttle program's final launch begins at 8:26 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time. Doors open at 7 a.m. $10. 510-336-7373 or ChabotSpace.org