I knew a little about Atlantis. It was launched for the first time October 3, 1985. It was the fourth orbital vehicle, after Enterprise (1976), Columbia (1981) and Challenger (1983). When first built, it weighed 151,315 pounds.
It was its name that attracted my attention. Two subjects have long run quiet tracks in the back of my mind, our country’s space program and the mythical lost continent of Atlantis. I got drawn in when they popped up together.
I had learned the story of Atlantis as a young, voracious but indiscriminate reader. A problem developed when Atlantis became linked with an odd character named Edgar Cayce, who was said to go into a trance and answer questions, including about the future. Cayce liked Atlantis, but with that continent he submerged when the New Age Movement degenerated into kooks, fanatics, and hustlers who knew how to turn a buck with weird things.
Our space program wasn’t fiction. It captured and held our attention for thirty years, spending 196 billion dollars, flying 135 missions with 350 astronauts, leaving both triumph in our moonwalks and tragedy in the spectacular, televised demise of Challenger and the spectral trail of debris in the northern Texas sky from Columbia.
There were four OVs at the end: Discovery (1983), Atlantis (1985), Endeavor (1991) and Enterprise (1976) Two spacecraft are remembered for their tragic endings, Challenger and Columbia. Challenger exploded Jan 28, 1986, 73 seconds after liftoff and Columbia disintegrated 16 minutes before its expected landing in Florida, Feb 1, 2003. Enterprise was never an orbiter; it lacked the engines and the heat shield. It was intended only for sub-orbital test flights.
Recently, a space shuttle on the back of a Boeing 747 circled New York City before landing there. It was a spectacular photo-op and a formal way to say goodbye to something America identified with. I thought it was Atlantis. I thought it was some sort of victory lap. I was wrong.
It was the Enterprise shown on the back of the 747, being shuttled from the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport to New York’s Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City. It was ending its career the same way it began, hitch-hiking on the back of another plane.
It would seem that Enterprise would be the least likely of the space shuttles to be given this degree of recognition. When it was first built, it was to become the Constitution to honor that document of US History. Some Star Trek fans launched a write-in campaign to change the name to that of the Star Trek spacecraft. President Gerald Ford changed the name to Enterprise by presidential decree. He never acknowledged the write-in campaign.
Atlantis didn’t even owe its name to the lost continent. It was named after a two-masted boat that had served as the primary research vessel for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts from 1930 to 1936.
Now the space shuttle program is over. I wonder where can I find a book by Edgar Cayce.