COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- When the space shuttle Atlantis took flight Friday morning, marking the end of NASA's 30-year-old shuttle program, the voice of a former Golden Eagle linebacker and member of the Tennessee Tech Sports Hall of Fame rang out through mission control, guiding the astronauts on board through the dramatic launch into orbit.
Barry Wilmore, who was raised in Mt. Juliet but now lives with
his family in Houston, served as the capcom, or the head of
communication in mission control, during the shuttle's ascent into
orbit and its entry into the atmosphere at the end of the mission.
It is a vital role in what he called the most dynamic part of the
shuttle's final mission.
Wilmore played football at Tech, arriving on campus as a walk-on and workig his way into not only a scholarship but the University's Sports Hall of Fame.
Atlantis' final launch marked the second consecutive time Wilmore served as capcom. Wilmore also spent about 11 days in space in 2009, when he was the pilot aboard another shuttle flight.
On the eve of the scheduled launch date, Wilmore said it was an honor to be involved with the program as it approaches its end.
"I do take a lot of pride in trying to do the job and do it well," he said. "It is nice to be a part of it as the program goes away."
He sees the end of the shuttle program as bittersweet, likening it to the loss of his first car, a Ford Mustang.
"It had to go away and I was sad to see it go, but I was looking forward to the next car," he said.
Wilmore is learning Russian in anticipation of piloting a mission out of Russia in a few years.
Wilmore said the shuttle program's legacy would live on in the lives of those it inspired.
"Our shuttle program has inspired people to do things that they might not have ordinarily … done," he said. "There's people that I've worked with that went and got master's degrees and doctorate degrees because they hoped to be able to play a role in what we're doing."
The program also is significant, Wilmore said, for the role it played in the construction of the International Space Station, which has brought more than a dozen countries together to explore space.
"It's just an unbelievably remarkable human achievement … that would not be possible, the way we built it, without the shuttle," he said of the space station.
Note: Parts of this story provided by The Tennessean