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Resident watches Discovery's last flight

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Posted: Friday, March 4, 2011 8:00 am

For many, it was a spectacular representation of what humans are capable of. For some it was sad to watch.

For Ahwatukee Foothills resident Pamela Whiffen, the final launch of space shuttle Discovery, it was both.

“It was bittersweet,” she said. “It was very tough to watch.”

On Feb. 24, just before 5 p.m. local time, Whiffen and more than 20,000 others stood on the causeway at Kennedy Space Center in Florida as space shuttle Discovery was launched for the final time in its 26-year history.

The launch also signaled the end of an era. After two more launches scheduled for this year, the United States will turn elsewhere for the launch of goods and U.S. astronauts.

“I don’t think the majority of America realizes that this is ending,” she said. “(At the launch) you could just feel a wave of sadness across the crowd. They were saying they couldn’t believe the U.S. is shutting down our human exploration.”

Whiffen, a former teacher in Scottsdale and a NASA educator ambassador, originally traveled to the sight in September. But it was the first of a handful of delays for Discovery.

“I spent a week waiting for Discovery to launch (in September),” she said. “This time, I said, ‘This is it, it has to launch.’”

The launch was almost scrapped again. Minutes before the scheduled 4:50 p.m. launch time a sensor went out on one of the range officers’ monitors.

“It was 1.3 seconds away from being canceled,” Whiffen said.

But when it finally took flight, Discovery mesmerized the crowd.

“It was a spectacular moment,” she said. “You realize the power of the human mind. It takes you beyond yourself.”

Discovery is currently docked with the International Space Station and is scheduled to return on March 8.

Space shuttle Endeavor is next to be retired after its scheduled April 19 launch. Space shuttle Atlantis is tentatively scheduled to launch in June, but funding for the mission has not yet been secured. If and when it does launch, it would be the final mission for the NASA space shuttle program.

“(The space shuttle program) has made an astounding impact on science because it’s broken down the barriers,” Whiffen said.

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