Gravity would honor shuttle workers by Donna Balancia
Donna Balancia worked to promote the NASA Shuttle Program

By DONNA BALANCIA — HOLLYWOOD — Sandra Bullock wasn’t the only one cut loose from the Shuttle.

When the end of NASA’s 39-year-old Shuttle program came along, thousands of people were cast adrift.

While astronauts, like the one portrayed by Bullock in “Gravity,” have traditionally represented our connection to the hopes and dreams associated with space exploration, many people of all occupations were retired after the final mission of Atlantis in July of 2011.

When the end finally came, all kinds of longtime Shuttle workers — assembly people and transportation workers, engineers and designers — even down to the little ladies who sewed and then laid inside the Shuttles the protective heat-resistent liner blankets  – all found themselves suddenly without a security blanket of their own.

As someone who helped promote the success of Kennedy Space Center and the NASA Shuttle Program in Florida, I recall the collective feeling of denial.  Among the people who worked on the Shuttles Endeavour, Discovery, Atlantis and Enterprise, as well as Columbia and Challenger, there had been a dedication and love for what were called the “birds” that flew into space from Cape Canaveral.

Gravity Shuttle Donna Balancia
Donna Balancia stands beside Space Shuttle Atlantis before the vehicle is put on display at Kennedy Space Center

When a Shuttle launched, it appeared to fly right overhead, like something out of a dream that would push your eyesight to squint to a pinpoint, and then it would suddenly disappear, leaving only a trail of white smoke.  Days later, when it would return to Earth there would be the ground-shaking sonic boom, startling for a newcomer, but after 135 missions locals took little notice and few would stir.

When there finally came the time that there were no Shuttles poised for launch, and Pads 39A and 39B looked merely like frail and purposeless support structures, it was a surreal and foggy feeling that hit home.  Among the Cape Canaveral locals in particular, there had been longterm denial, and then the eventual reality that their world, and their source of support, had been cut off.

Endeavour, Discovery, Atlantis and Enterprise have all been retired to carry out the rest of their stalled existence as education vehicles, all housed in museums, in Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; Cape Canaveral; and New York City.  But for the Shuttle workers, it may take some time before their destiny becomes as clear.

So in honor of, and with great respect for the thousands of people who helped bring our NASA Shuttle Program to life,  I cast my most obvious Best Picture vote.

And while my vote won’t count for much, a win for “Gravity” will always remind us that those workers represented that there really was a connection — to the Shuttle, and also to our dreams.