Wineka column: Space buff hoping weather holds out

  • Posted: Friday, July 8, 2011 12:01 a.m.
    UPDATED: Monday, January 2, 2012 12:20 a.m.

When you are 6 miles away, you can’t exactly say you have a front-row seat.
But Terry Closner, a self-proclaimed space geek from Rowan County, will have one of the better viewing spots for the launch of NASA’s 135th and final space shuttle flight.
“I always wanted to come down and get as close as I could,” Closner said Thursday from Daytona Beach, Fla., where he and his wife, Susan, have been headquartered, waiting for the big day.
“Everyone said it’s an experience you never forget.”
The space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled for a takeoff this morning, if the weather and cloud cover cooperate. If not, Saturday and Sunday are in the narrow windows of opportunity.
“If we don’t see it this weekend, we probably won’t,” Closner said. “We’re praying for a launch.”
The space shuttle era began 30 years ago when Columbia made the first flight of two days. Over three decades, the program provided many firsts — the first woman in space, Sally Ride; the first black astronaut in space, Guion Blueford; the first congressman in space, Sen. Jake Garn of Utah; the first teacher-astronaut, Barbara Morgan; the first untethered spacewalk by Bruce McCandless; the first woman commander, Eileen Collins; and the first Russian cosmonaut on a U.S. space mission.
Shuttle flights also launched the Jupiter probe, Galileo, and the Hubble Space Telescope.
And there were the tragedies: the Challenger explosion after liftoff in 1986, killing the seven crew members, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, and Columbia’s destruction during its re-entry in 2003, when again seven crew members were lost.
Over its missions, five different shuttle spacecraft have carried 355 people from 16 countries and, with this last mission, will have logged 541 million miles.
“A lot of us don’t want to see it end,” Closner said.
Closner, 55, comes from the generation of Americans who as kids watched space launches all the time, through the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. Closner was more dedicated than most of his peers.
He remembers having a stand-off with his mother at his grandparents’ home in Shelby one Sunday afternoon when it was time to go home, but he refused because it would mean missing an Apollo liftoff.
Subjects such as astronomy and science in general fascinated Closner as he grew up, making sure he watched every launch of manned spacecraft live.
Even as an adult, he has viewed space shuttle missions take off and come back home through live streaming on the NASA website, and he has pored over the photographs sent back from probes such as Galileo.
It’s hard to believe he was a business major, not an engineering student. Today he works out of his home as an information technology specialist for a Virginia-based nonprofit ministry.
“A part of me always wanted to be in the space program, but God had other plans for me,” Closner said.
The Closners planned to leave their Daytona Beach hotel (68 miles from Cape Canaveral) at 10 p.m. Thursday and drive to a designated parking spot where they were supposed to board a tour bus at 2 a.m. today for the ride to the Kennedy Space Center.
They would be getting off the bus and going through security checks before boarding again and heading to the viewing location on the causeway, which is on the Cape Canaveral property and part of a secure area.
Closner said this viewing spot — tickets cost $175 each — is second only to one 3 miles closer where media and VIP personnel are allowed.
Closner has been to the space center twice before — in 1981, just prior to the first shuttle flight, and two years ago. The tours were tremendous experiences “for space geeks like me,” he said.
Catawba College associate professor Dr. Cyndi Osterhus, a person with highly personal ties to the shuttle program, considered traveling to Florida for the final space shuttle launch.
It’s easy to understand why. It could have been her, not Christa McAuliffe, who was supposed to be the first teacher in space 25 years ago before the Challenger explosion.
Osterhus, then Cyndi Zeger, was one of 110 Teachers in Flight finalists, out of 11,000 applicants nationwide. Then she was among the last 20 standing, divided into 10 “pods” of two teachers each.
She and McAuliffe were in the same pod, and Osterhus remembers the U.S. secretary of education telling her she had a good chance to win it all.
“I came home just super excited, knowing I was in the final 20,” Osterhus said Thursday.
NASA chose a final 10, one from each pod, and McAuliffe emerged from their two-person group and went on to be the teacher selected overall.
“I feel I was pretty close, actually, which is a very humbling thing,” Osterhus said.
With her strong math and science background, Osterhus always has considered herself a fairly logical person. But her competing to become the first teacher in space was an impulsive thing, she said.
At the time, she was a math teacher at Salisbury High.
“I was terribly disappointed when I was not chosen, but it was a tremendous experience,” she said. “... I was very glad I was part of it all.”
As a way to both grieve and heal after the Challenger tragedy, Osterhus became part of an international faculty of sorts who spoke often of the space program, its importance to education and the need to keep exploring. She also continued her space education by attending several national conferences.
In 2007, Osterhus joined many of the original Teacher in Space finalists for Barbara Morgan’s launch into space. Morgan was McAuliffe’s backup in 1986. When the 20 finalists spent a full week in Washington doing interviews and being judged in 1985, Osterhus, Morgan and McAuliffe often spent time together.
Osterhus and her own family sat with Morgan’s Idaho family during the successful 2007 liftoff.
As the shuttle program comes to a close, the Discovery and Endeavor spacecraft already have been retired. Atlantis will be the last one.
“I am really disappointed we are not going to pursue any manned space exploration,” Osterhus said.
It doesn’t send the right message to young men and women, she added. It says this country is not a place where we explore, look for new things or invent, Osterhus said.
A grandmother now, Osterhus seldom receives requests any longer to talk about the space program. She described the third- and sixth-grade curriculums’ attention to space as “very limited.”
But as director for Catawba College’s Shirley Peeler Ritchie Academy for Teaching, Osterhus keeps trying to excite young people about science and math — something the space program often did.
Just ask Terry Closner.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

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