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As shuttle era ends, Glendale resident recalls witnessing history

It started with Buck Rogers. The mid-20th Century comic book hero — forever rocketing through space, ray gun in hand — sparked Glendale resident Robert Costa’s life-long infatuation with space exploration.

So when Costa, then in the middle of a career in film production, was invited in 1969 to attend the launch of Apollo 11 at the Kennedy Space Center, he didn’t hesitate.

“I was with a group of people who were experimenting with 3-D,” Costa said. “They decided they were going to go to Florida to film the Apollo in 3-D. They asked if I would go along and I said, ‘Absolutely.’”

He and his wife Mary-Anne positioned themselves on the beach, not far from famed broadcast newsman Walter Cronkite. The 3-D experiment turned out to be a bust, but it didn’t matter. Space wonk Costa was witnessing history.


“I wouldn’t exchange anything for that experience,” said Costa, now 85. “It was wonderful. There were photographers from all over the world speaking every language you can hear. When the launch went up, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.”

His was one of an endless stream of memories of that have spilled forth from professional scientists and amateurs alike as NASA prepares to shutter one of its signature undertakings — the shuttle program — with the landing of the Atlantis in Florida Thursday. It is the last of 135 shuttle program missions.

Formally launched in 1972, the program was designed to explore low Earth orbit. The shuttles were used to deploy things like satellites and telescopes and components for the international space station. And in more recent years they transported astronauts and equipment to and from the space station.

“The space shuttle really was the world’s first reusable space vehicle,” said Rachel Kraft, a spokeswoman for NASA’s mission control in Houston. “It lifts off like a rocket and lands like a glider or an airplane. It for a long time served as an orbiting lab. It really is like no other space craft in history.”


Shuttle landings at Edwards Air Force Base — the Palmdale site received 54 of 133 incoming flights — attracted enormous crowds, said NASA historian Christian Gelzer.

“It is hard to describe,” Gelzer said of landing day. “There is an atmosphere of excitement and electricity, anticipation. It precedes the landing and then it follows the landing well after [the shuttle] is down.”

NASA will continue to send astronauts to the international space station via Russian space craft. And plans for an American-built deep-space rocket are in the works. But the landing of the Atlantis, and the retiring of the shuttle program, is a pivotal moment for some NASA employees, Gelzer said.

“Those who are especially emotional are those who spent their entire careers directly associated with it,” Gelzer said.

The Atlantis, which touched down shortly before 6 a.m. at the Kennedy Space Center, will have traveled nearly 126 million miles during 33 flights since its maiden mission in 1985, according to NASA.

Despite the shuttle’s retirement, for Costa, like other space enthusiasts around the world, the thrill of witnessing men being sent to the moon retains a special significance.

“It’s been done in literature, in science fiction and in movies, but never in reality,” Costa said. “And here it was. Imagine, sending a man to the moon and bringing him back. That is incredible. That is why I like talking about it. I want to keep it alive.”