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SALT LAKE CITY -- Current and former Utahns who took part in projects related to the space shuttle program say Friday's final launch will be a bittersweet moment as they take pride in the program's accomplishments but feel regret over the end of an era.
David Sebahar began working as an engineer at NASA contractor Thiokol Corp.'s rocket works in Box Elder County in 1982 following the first shuttle launch in 1981. He spent most of the last three decades working on shuttle-related projects.
Friday's launch of Atlantis will mark NASA's 135th and final shuttle flight.
It will be a proud day but probably a sad day to watch that thing go.
"It will be a proud day but probably a sad day to watch that thing go," Sebahar told the Deseret News of Salt Lake City.
NASA selected Thiokol in 1974 to build the shuttle's solid rocket boosters. The Utah-made powerful twin rockets provide 70 percent of the thrust needed to get the shuttle into Earth's orbit.
Thiokol shared in the shuttle program's successes and tragedies over the last 30 years.
In 1986, a presidential commission released its report on the Challenger disaster, criticizing NASA and Thiokol for management problems leading to the explosion that claimed the lives of seven astronauts.
Minneapolis-based Alliant Techsystems Inc., known as ATK, purchased Thiokol in 2001. The company's Aerospace Systems Group is still based in Utah and continued making booster segments until the last one was cast in September 2009.
I'm very disappointed that we are stopping the shuttle and then the United States has no ability to get into space on our own. I think it's a big mistake. I think we should have continued it until we had a replacement vehicle.
"We have a really good team of folks that's capable and ready and willing when NASA decides what they want to do," said Sebahar, now a vice president at ATK.
It will be years before the United States sends its own spacecraft up again, and Utah's future role in the space program is unclear.
"I'm very disappointed that we are stopping the shuttle and then the United States has no ability to get into space on our own," said former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah. "I think it's a big mistake. I think we should have continued it until we had a replacement vehicle."
As spokesman for Thiokol and an adjunct professor at Utah State University, Gil Moore ignited a passion for space science in Utah. He said there were about 1,500 workers at Thiokol when he arrived in 1962.
"Then it went up to 8,000 and now it's down to 1,500 again," Moore told the Deseret News. "It's been a very inspiring impact on the state and on the nation and the world, and it's a doggone shame" the shuttle will fly no more.
Jim Halsell, who piloted or commanded five shuttle missions from 1994 to 2000 and now is a vice president at ATK, said there "cannot but be a sense of bittersweet loss" about the end of the shuttle program.
But he added: "I think there's excitement about what's coming next. All of these rockets need safe, reliable, proven boost capability. We believe our five-segment solid rocket launch vehicle provides that."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)