Rare Shuttle Rollover Photo Op Evokes Sadness, Pride
By the end of its career, space shuttle Discovery will have flown 39 space missions since its first flight in 1984. Over that time, countless dedicated engineers and technicians serviced the spacecraft. Here, Discovery's current team walks the shuttle out to the Vehicle Assembly Building to meet its fuel tank and rocket boosters on Sept. 9, 2010.
Credit: NASA

CAPE CANAVERAL ? Even for many Kennedy Space Center employees, it can be rare to see a shuttle up-close.

On Thursday, hundreds seized the chance to pay respects to Discovery as it rolled from its hangar to the Vehicle Assembly Building for what is expected to be the last time.

The short move known as a "rollover" typically takes only about 30 minutes.

But this time NASA let Discovery linger, parking the spacecraft outside its hangar for several hours to allow employees to take pictures.

"I've been here 27 years. The first time I've had a picture in front of a shuttle is now," said 46-year-old Domita Gilmore of Cocoa, a United Space Alliance field engineer.

As the shuttle fleet nears retirement, NASA and the space center are occasionally loosening strict operating procedures in an effort to recognize and thank employees, including thousands of contractors who face layoffs over the next year.

The center has organized "morale events" that provide photo opportunities with the shuttle, offer access to restricted facilities and allow workers to leave a lasting personal mark.

"It's amazing, all the folks and all the work they do," said Angie Brewer, a NASA manager who oversees Atlantis' preparations for flight and is helping to organize the events. "They sacrifice a lot with their families and the time constraints that we deal with."

The events include shuttle moves, tours of orbiter hangars and opportunities to sign a wall in the assembly building.

More than 3,500 names now line a concrete wall in the assembly building's cavernous transfer aisle, framed by a shuttle emblem and a sign that reads "An American Treasure: The Space Shuttle."

"There's a lot, a lot of history on that wall," said Tim Seymour, a 51-year-old USA employee and member of the "closeout crew" that straps astronauts into their seats and closes the shuttle hatch.

The agency took care to select a black Skilcraft marker and a white paint base for the wall that wouldn't easily fade.

Seven-by-seven grids taped to the wall frame neat boxes for employees to write in their names, which they can do twice a week on different shifts.

One NASA engineer signed on behalf of a retiree who no longer has access to the center.

At times, it's difficult for the technicians, engineers, administrative staff and others participating in the events to contain emotions, as they reminisce about working with the shuttle and confront the program's imminent end.

Donald Meinert, another closeout crew member who has signed the wall, remembered working alongside the Challenger and Columbia crews before they were lost.

"You have triumph the vast majority of the time, and . . . and then you don't," said 53-year-old Meinert, of Mims. "It always chokes me up. There are times when it's really, really personal."

On Thursday, 41-year-old Melanie Moon of Titusville, a 21-year shuttle program veteran, held back tears thinking about Discovery rolling to the assembly building in preparation for its final scheduled mission, targeted to launch Nov. 1.

Each day, Moon keeps track of all the people, tools and equipment that enter or leave Discovery.

"You form a bond with it, because that's the one that you take care of," she said. "You see it through from liftoff to wheels stop."

Setting up photo opportunities seems a simple enough gesture for NASA, but it's actually complex.

Managers carefully monitor weather and other operational concerns to be sure work on the shuttle isn't compromised. Each event is coordinated with security.

On Wednesday, a water main break closed the center, delaying Discovery's rollover. On Thursday, Discovery would have bolted into the assembly building and skipped the photos if rain was approaching, but rain held off until the afternoon.

Brewer said the feedback has been so positive that some wish NASA had started hosting similar events long ago.

"It's nice to have folks be able to see the shuttle and say, 'I'm a part of this,' " she said.

Two more Discovery viewing events are planned if conditions permit, and some employees will be able to invite family along.

NASA plans to start rolling Discovery out to launch pad 39A at 8 p.m. Sept. 20, about four hours earlier than usual so it's before most employees and their families go to sleep. The next day, the pad's rotating tower will be held open to permit rare photos of the shuttle on its pad, as if poised for launch.

The events are perhaps most rewarding for employees like Gilmore, who support the program in important ways but don't get to see the shuttle frequently.

"Even though you don't actually work on the shuttle, we all have a job to do and we take it seriously, very seriously," said Gilmore, who works on computer systems related to ground support equipment. "It's sad to see it go."

Click here for a photo gallery of Discovery's final rollover.

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