CAPE CANAVERAL — Sweet and sour.
That's how Apollo 16 astronaut and moonwalker Charlie Duke described to me how he felt about the ending of the shuttle orbiter program NASA has operated for 30 years.
Sweet because, except for two tragic missions, the three-decade-old program completed 132 successful missions and advanced the United States' presence in space. And sour because when Atlantis returns to Earth, the orbiter will retire, as will the entire program — forever.
Seeing Atlantis Friday blast off from the Kennedy Space Center media site amid thousands of spectators, I fully understood what he meant.
It was my first time seeing a shuttle lift off from the Cape. It's nothing like seeing it from the Stuart News building where I've often watched the launches in past years.
As the orbiter soared into the clouds, hundreds of journalists who have covered these missions for years cheered, clapped and cried.
Many hugged each other after Atlantis disappeared in the clouds, 42 seconds after liftoff.
For several years, I've had the tremendous pleasure of knowing several NASA astronauts, most from the Apollo era, and retiring the shuttle has been a hot button issue for many.
Last month I attending SpaceFest III at Tucson, Ariz. — a gathering of space techies, artists and astronauts. I asked 11 Apollo astronauts how they felt about NASA's (and the White House's) decision to end the shuttle program.
Most weren't happy, and told me so.
The biggest complaint I heard was NASA's lack of a next-generation spacecraft to replace the shuttle. And the resulting forced over-reliance on Russia and its cosmonauts to ferry our astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan told me mothballing the shuttle without a suitable replacement was "ludicrous."
He fiercely believes America is "abrogating" to Russia its 50 years of superiority in space.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon during the landing of Apollo 11 in 1969, had a different take.
He said it was time to retire shuttle and echoed criticisms voiced by others — that operating a spacecraft with crew and cargo in the same vehicle was a bad idea that could too easily result in the lose of life. The Challenger and Columbia disasters proved that, he reminded me.
I can't help but agree with Apollo astronaut Richard "Dick" Gordon, who insisted the shuttle program and the work NASA does is needed to inspire the space explorers of tomorrow.
Friday, shuttle astronaut Robert "Bob" Crippen, who piloted the first shuttle flight in Columbia along with moonwalker Apollo 16 astronaut John Young, was urging a standing-room only crowd to inspire students to study the tough subjects needed to advance our knowledge of space.
He "wasn't happy" about retiring shuttle, he said, but Crippen was optimistic. He said it's our nature as Americans to press forward in space.
"I expect us to go back to the moon and onto Mars," he said.
I hope he's right.
Not just to honor our bona fide space heroes of the past, but for all the children still hoping to grow up to be an astronaut.