On Friday afternoon, I plan to watch the scheduled liftoff for the final flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavor from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

It will be a bittersweet time because — for a time — the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Space Shuttle program were an important part of my life.

I worked on Capitol Hill from 1981 – 87. In 1982, I served as Communication Director for Congressman Manuel Lujan of New Mexico. He was a member of what was then called the Science and Technology Committee. NASA and the Space Shuttle program came under the committee’s jurisdiction.

Columbia lands at White Sands in 1982

In the summer of 1982, the Columbia Space Shuttle was diverted from its scheduled landing at Edwards Air Force base in California because of bad weather and landed at White Sands, New Mexico.  Lujan and I were there but sandstorms in the New Mexico desert forced a one-day delay.

In 1985, Lujan became ranking member on the Science and Tech committee and I moved over to the committee staff as his special assistant.  Attending shuttle launches at Cape Canaveral were a perk of the committee assignment.

Most of the launches were special occasions.

One was not.

Challenger explodes shortly after liftoff on January 28, 1986

On Jan. 28, 1986, the the shuttle Challenger lifted off the pad and exploded. Lujan assigned me to the team investigating the disaster. We spent the next seven months probing the accident before issuing a committee report.

A box of souvenirs from those days sits somewhere in one of our storage rooms. It includes mission patches, notes from the Challenger investigation, photos from the launches and landings and photos with astronauts and NASA officials. I need to dig it out one day and look at it.

The space shuttle program comes to an end soon.  America’s commitment to space is not as firm as it once was and our potential to explore the heavens remains unrealized.

Sadly, it seems we no longer want to go where no one has gone before.

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