Last spring, Justin Ouellette and I made a pilgrimage to Florida’s Space Coast in an attempt to bear witness to the penultimate launch of the Space Shuttle.

What we found was a fading community with little of the spark left from the age of The Right Stuff. Low earth orbit has become home to an ever more diverse group of nations and private parties, increasingly decentralized around the world and less reliant on NASA. The environs of the Kennedy Space Center, once bustling with progress and optimism, had begun to decay long before we got there.

But what it’s lost in industry it retains in heart. Almost a million people packed around Cape Canaveral in the hours before liftoff, and there was a collective sense of bittersweetness that we were losing something we couldn’t easily replace, both as Americans and human beings. When the launch was scrubbed during the final stages, with the astronauts in place and ready to fly, the disappointment was palpable.

Endeavour successfully left the planet weeks later, long after we’d been obligated to return home. The final launch in July drew an even bigger crowd, even as thousands of local workers for the shuttle program were preparing to be laid off. As time went by, I wound up hating most of the photos I’d taken, wishing I’d focused my efforts differently after my experience there. Justin and I took great amusement at scrubbing our own mission for a grand combined photo essay; his photos are wonderful and can be seen here.

Maybe some day we’ll go back.