Former Shuttle Workers Cheer Last Liftoff

Former aeronautics workers who helped give flight to the NASA space shuttle program watched with mixed emotions the final shuttle launch on Friday.

"It's sad to see the end of the program. It's something I grew up with," said Marc MacDonell, a former Fairchild Republic employee who worked on the shuttle program for 10 years.

MacDonell joined dozens of others at Long Island's Cradle of Aviation museum to view the launch of the shuttle Atlantis on a big screen television.

The crowd of young and old counted down to lift off, then erupted in cheers as the shuttle reached for the stars one final time.

"Lift off! The final lift off of Atlantis!" a NASA announcer proclaimed. "On the shoulders of the space shuttle, America will continue the dream."

Because of financial concerns, the federal government has scuttled the shuttle program after three decades.  President Barack Obama has spoken openly about the "private sector" paying for future space exploration.

"This is the end of an era," said Samir Shah of Syosset, who witnessed history with his son and a group of other Cub Scouts. "It's a shame."

"What could President Kennedy say today?" asked the museum's chairman Todd Richman, referring to JFK's ultimatum that the U.S. reach the moon by the end of the 1960s. 

"We are losing the awe-inspiring moments like this that motivate kids to pursue careers in science and engineering."

Two Long Island companies, Fairchild Republic and Grumman, played major roles in the three-decade-old shuttle program. Fairchild Republic designed and built the space craft's tail, and Grumman built its wings. 

"This was a very, very unique craft when it was first built," said MacDonell. "It was the first to fly into space, come back and land like a plane."

As they looked back, the former shuttle workers also looked forward, wondering "what's next?"

"We should go back to the moon and then on to Mars," said Frank Pullo, a former Grumman employee who worked on both the space shuttle and lunar module.

Missions like that seem unlikely in these tough financial times, but the men and women who have always had the "right stuff" insisted anything is possible.

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