At 11:29 EST Friday the Space Shuttle Atlantis left Earth for the last time. I was there. I still can’t fathom it. It was a long morning, but an amazing experience that I am privileged to tell you about.
The window for launch was about 10 minutes; the chance of having a “go” for launch was 30%. When we left the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, we were told to keep an eye on our Twitter feed to see if weather allowed them to be fueling the tanks. If the tanks were not being fueled, then we weren’t launching. I was staying in Orlando, so when my alarm went off at 2:57am (I have a weird OCD thing about waking up on 5’s or 0’s), I immediately checked my Twitter feed and saw that the tanks had been filled, then headed out on the 45 minute (without traffic) drive to Kennedy Space Center.
The morning was full of speakers and a crazy desire for coffee. The tent was still air-conditioned, which is necessary in Florida, even at 5 in the morning. The one nice thing about the humidity in Florida is that I found breathing the air to be an excellent alternative to drinking water. I was never thirsty this whole time.
Perhaps one of the cooler parts of the morning’s itinerary was being able to walk up to the road and wave to the AstroVan (The Airstream Van that brings astronauts to the launch pad). This sounds corny, but as I saw the security helicopter approach and then the Airstream coming down the road behind them, I couldn’t help but remember all the footage I used to watch of the Apollo astronauts waving as they entered the AstroVan. The van stopped in front of the Vehicle Assembly Building to drop of the Flight Director.
And if we had any questions, we could just turn and ask an astronaut! Tony Antonelli, Pilot for STS-119 (Discovery) and STS-132 (Atlantis):
When we got back to the tent, we were greeted by another special guest: Robert Crippen, Pilot of STS-1, the very first flight of the Space Shuttle, that he flew along with Gemini and Apollo veteran John Young. There were only 2 crew members on that one because there wasn’t room for anymore ejector seats.
Robert explained to us his experiences on the shuttle, and why he eventually hung up his space boots and left the astronaut corps to become the director of the Kennedy Space Center. His reasoning was thoughtful, explaining that after Challenger broke up, he thought the director should be a former astronaut, someone acutely aware of the dangers of space flight. That former astronaut wound up being him.
By that time we broke for some coffee and “breakfast” at the NASA cafeteria. When I asked why the food wasn’t “the best I’ve had,” Tracy Thumm of the International Space Station Science office in Houston (perhaps more importantly, she and her husband are loyal listeners of the Nerdist podcast), explained, “It may be NASA, but in the end it’s still a U.S. Government-run cafeteria.” It all made sense after that, as did every meal I’ve ever had at a public school.
After breakfast it was time to take our places for the launch.
With the launch go for 11:26, we got into position. I moved in front of the grandstands; I don’t know if they were the same grandstands that Lyndon Johnson watched Apollo 11 lift off from, but in my head it was.
At T-00:00:31, the countdown held. No one knew what was going on, just that the countdown held. The launch window was until 11:34. We all waited anxiously…. not quite sure if Atlantis would make her launch window. Then, after 3 minutes of waiting, I finally saw a plume of steam form from the water deluge system….
I was insanely excited when I saw this. Choosing between the camera lens and the naked eye was the most difficult decision of the day. I flipped the Canon to “sport” and started snapping.
The glow of the boosters on the steam from the water deluge system can be seen on the next picture:
Then it cleared the tower:
The color of the engine flames is unbelievable. I cant even describe the color. The camera doesn’t capture it because it’s too bright. The closest thing I can come up with is a welding torch with no mask on and about 50 times brighter… By this time we still hadn’t heard the shuttle, and we didn’t hear it until about here:
The sound was incredible. It pounds you in the chest. The concussion of the sound waves is exhilarating. As the sound passed over, it kind of dawned on me that this was the last time the shuttle would ever fly. It went up and up. It entered the clouds:
And just like that…. It was out of sight. It was right around that point when I began to well up with tears. Then they began coming out: I cried. I don’t know if it was the awesomeness of the moment, the thought that this was the culmination of my adolescent obsession with space and the space program, or, more troubling, if I was crying because part of me thought this was the end of American-financed manned space flight.
The International Space Station sits above the earth, and American astronauts will be on board. However, if we are going to get there, we have to hitch a ride on the Russian Soyuz. Remember the Soyuz? It’s been around so long that it actually docked with an Apollo service module in 1975. Like most Russian things, they build things robust, and to last.
I was able to fight back the tears and go into the tent to watch the shuttle separate from the tank on NASA TV.
And then that was it… It happened. The shuttle launched for the last time and I was there to see it. I felt truly honored. People on Twitter were telling me all week how lucky I was and that I was witnessing history. People say that phrase sometimes: “witnessing history.” This was the first time I ever really felt that it applied to me personally.
I can’t say thank you enough. Thank you to NASA for having the tweet-up; Thank you to Perry for proofreading and editing the site; Of course, thank you to Chris for telling me I was stupid for thinking about not going just so I could stay back and work at the Fruit Stand. And thank you, Nerdist readers, for sitting through 3,000 words about a space nut on vacation in Florida. It was all worth it, even the 5 hours in the car on the 45 minute drive back from KSC.
One last picture…. The shuttle plume continued above the clouds, and cast a shadow at a right angle to the left of the plume. I took this as the security helicopter that led the way for the astronauts to the pad flew by the plume:
Follow Matt on Twitter: @mattmira