On this date 10 years ago in the pre-dawn darkness, the space shuttle Atlantis touched down safely on a Florida runway. "Atlantis is home," proclaimed NASA control. "Its journey complete. A moment to be savored."
"After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle's earned its place in history," radioed Commander Christopher Ferguson in reply. "And it's come to a final stop."
Today, a new space race has taken shape, this one fueled by creative entrepreneurs who have apparently made more money than they can spend here on Earth. Is that galling? To some people, yes, but not to 82-year-old flier Wally Funk or untold millions of American women who were happy to see one of the "Mercury 13" astronauts finally get her shot.
The Atlantis had a small crew -- Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley, and mission specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim -- but not a small job: It delivered some 9,400 pounds of spare parts and equipment, along with 2,677 pounds of food, to the International Space Station, enough to sustain operations up there for a year. But that landing 10 years ago, the 135th in shuttle history, was the final voyage for the storied and sometimes star-crossed fleet that then consisted of three remaining spaceships.
"A lot of emotion today, but one thing is indisputable: America is not going to stop exploring," Ferguson said from the cockpit. "Thank you, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavor -- and our ship Atlantis. Thank you for protecting us and bringing this program to such a fitting end."
Atlantis remained in Florida, to be put on display at the Kennedy Space Center visitors' complex. Discovery was destined for the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum annex near Dulles Airport, and the Endeavour to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
As for the space shuttles Challenger and the Columbia, they live in our minds' eye, along with the brave men and women -- Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik of the Challenger; and Columbia's Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon -- who still live in our hearts.
Before them, an Apollo program fire on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral killed astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee. Lyndon Johnson was president at the time and he received the news in the family quarters at the White House while listening to a toast from his commerce secretary lauding him for signing a non-proliferation treaty with the Soviet Union. An aide handed the president a grim note.
"The first Apollo crew was under test at Cape Kennedy and a fire broke out in the capsule and all three were killed," the note stated. "Grissom, White, and Chaffee."
Gus Grissom, who had nearly drowned in a Mercury spaceflight splashdown, was especially cognizant of the dangers of his chosen profession. Grissom also had warned his countrymen of the peril. "We're in a risky business and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program," he had said. "The conquest of space is worth the risk of life."
Brave words, but they were of scant consolation that night to Lyndon Baines Johnson.
"The shock," he recalled later, "hit me like a physical blow."
John F. Kennedy had also warned there might be days like Jan. 27, 1967 -- and Jan. 28, 1986, and Feb. 1, 2003. "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard," Kennedy said in his famous 1962 speech at Rice University. "Therefore, as we set sail, we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked."
The adventure continues, though the danger is still ever-present. When George W. Bush eulogized the Columbia crew, he recalled something that crew member David Brown told his brother before the ill-fated mission: that if disaster struck, the space program would still live on. "Captain Brown was correct," President Bush said. "America's space program will go on."
Ronald Reagan traveled the same path in 1986, flying on Air Force One from Andrews Air Force Base to Houston for a memorial service at the Johnson Space Center. The president and first lady Nancy Reagan sat between two new widows, the wives of Challenger commander Dick Scobee and crew member Michael Smith. "I found it difficult to say anything," Reagan recalled in his autobiography. "All we could do was hug the families and try to hold back tears."
But Reagan was mistaken. It was not all he could do. When it was his time to speak, the president paid homage to each of the astronauts by name. "America itself was built by men and women such as our seven star voyagers," he said.
"Sometimes when we reach for the stars, we fall short," Reagan added in an expression of the American spirit, which encompasses much more than space travel. "But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain. Our nation is indeed fortunate that we can still draw on immense reservoirs of courage, character, and fortitude; that we're still blessed with heroes like those of the space shuttle Challenger."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.