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STS-135… Lift Off!

I'm pretty sure there was a Space Shuttle program over there...

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 VAB and the countdown clock at dawn

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.


That's a pretty cool ride to take to work

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):

Oh, me? I was just the last guy that flew Atlantis on STS-132.

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 Crippen

If I had a Grampa, I'd pick him.

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.

My head is blocking the Shuttle.... It's huge. The shuttle is pretty big too.

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….

Holy crap! This is going!!

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:

Just about clear of the tower...

That's how much power you need to defeat gravity.

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:

This is when the sound caught up with us.

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:

Into the clouds

Into 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.

Tweet-up attendees clap as Atlantis reaches orbit.

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:

The shadow on the clouds.


Follow Matt on Twitter: @mattmira

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  1. Mary says:

    My family (husband and 8 yr old) made the 16 hr trek from Pennsylvania to see the launch. It was truly an awesome moment.

  2. Damien says:

    Thank you for the awesome coverage Matt. We all appreciate you covering such a historic event for those of us who couldn’t make it.
    PS. Greg, I certainly hope that your post of “nerd” was meant to be ironic, because we are in fact on lol

  3. Sarah says:

    Love this and Matt Mira is cute.

  4. Patti says:

    Matt, thanks so much for sharing your experience with us. I watched the shuttle launch online, and was tweeting back and forth about it with someone from Germany! I just thought that was kinda cool. Not as cool as being right there to watch, though. I can’t wait to see more pics. Like everyone else has said, please write more! I’m so glad you were able to do this.

  5. Yanjaa! says:

    Off topic – gotta say I love all the Back To The Future-luuuv you guys give :D. Makes me happy.

  6. Ken C says:

    Missed the launch in person. Gonna go to the landing.
    Just couldn’t do a flight and hotel on a 30% chance of launch.
    You going to the landing?

  7. Matt Mira says:

    I’m so glad you guys liked it. I have a whole bunch of left-over pictures that I think I will throw in a blog post later on in the week…. Kind of like a clip show, but instead of the Golden Girls remembering previous episodes you’ve seen…

    It will be me showing you pictures you hadn’t seen from an event that I told you about….

    Actually its going to be a lot like the Enchantment Under the Sea dance in BTTF 2…. New Footage at the event we all came to know and love. STS-135.

  8. Fredrik says:

    Thank you Matt for sharing this moment!
    Like the photos and the text.

  9. Bill says:

    You can use google earth to follow the shuttle in real time.

  10. Diana says:

    Matt, please write more. These NASA entries have been great. PLEASE write more (and then post on Nerdist)!

  11. Graham Trudeau says:


  12. john says:

    Hey Bro, amazing hope to see them before you go!

  13. @The_Nicktator says:

    I don’t know it was because of Matt’s passion for NASA, or if he just has a really great way with words, but these post were really enjoyable. They were PHENOMENAL (I couldn’t resist).

    Mira Booey should be sent to various nerd places so he can blog about them.

  14. Greg says:


  15. gladly says:

    That’s such a great report on the launch, Matt. There was definitely a little something in my eye by the end of it. The pictures are fantastic, too.

  16. Rusty campbell says:

    Enjoyed the reports very much. I visited the space center when I was 13. We were a week early for a launch. I couldn’t get over the crawler that transported the shuttle to the pad. Was the big eagles nest still in the tree next to the road on the way out to the (now) 3rd largest building?

  17. Rosie Forest says:

    I am also a NASA fan, and I have read many posts by people there, but this is by far my favorite. I am so glad you got to do this, way better than fixing Fruit. And you deserve it Matt. You are a great dude and I’m so happy you got to be a part of something you love.

  18. Roger says:

    Great blog post Matt! I stayed up all night down here in New Zealand to watch the live launch on the inter web. It was about 3:30am here. I
    got so excited that I couldn’t sleep after and I felt like a kid again seeing a launch for the first time.

  19. JetpackBlues says:


    First off, thank you for reporting this for Nerdist. You’ve participated in something that people worldwide have never done. Including myself.

    I know yours is one of many reports of the last launch of the Space Shuttle, but I’ve given your personal report more gravitas than any network segment on this — the end of an era.

    I wish I could have trailed the Atlantis into the clouds, with my jetpack, to give it a proper send-off. But alas, it wasn’t meant to be.


  20. Lee Gibson says:

    I love that you got to do this. I’m so sad that I never got to see a shuttle launch.

    On to the next spacecraft! Let’s stop dinkin’ around in LEO!

  21. Jerry says:

    Matt, great writing. Very heartfelt. Wish I could have been there. Thanks for all of the pictures too. Some of the best I’ve seen so far.

  22. Thanks for the post, Matt! Sounds like a fantastic time. 🙂

  23. Eddie Cochrane says:

    Thanks Matt, great post. It’s nearly nineteen years since I had the chance to see a shuttle launch live and I still have clear and fond memories of that day. Glad you got this chance to see the launch.

  24. John Lewis says:

    Color me jealous. I saw a shuttle launch many years ago from a much greater distance and I was awed by it. I’m sure I would have wiped away a few tears as well. Thanks for sharing the experience with us.

  25. Sharon Hills says:

    How exciting for you, Matt! Growing up in Miami, my Dad took us to every shuttle launch, starting with the first. There’s no way to describe how bright it is and quiet(at first). One year, while we stood on the beach to watch, a school of dolphins escorted a whale to the sand to have her baby! Now that’s a memorable day, for sure.

  26. poorjavier says:

    Nice job Matt. Great pics. Great write up. I am a 46 yr old man and I did get weepy. Thanks. size 8 hats rule!!

  27. laanba says:

    A lot of us cried Friday. I would have love to have been there to see that. I’m glad you had the opportunity.

  28. DefconDan says:

    Awesome Matt glad you got to experience that and even gladder that you told us about it!

  29. Liz says:

    Great post and pictures! Really fantastic pics and I can only imagine how many you have that didn’t make it up. After listening to you on the podcast for so long I felt like a proud big sister. Way to go Mira Booey! I welled up watching the launch streaming at work and again reading this. Keep it up and just say no to the Fruit Store!

  30. abigdaddya says:

    Just awesome writing Matt. I have been following you guys for a long time. My head would have taken up the entire shot.

    Love You Guys!

  31. Pat OV 40 says:

    Well done Matt! Glad Big C. talked you into this. Jobs are going to come and go, but opportunities like this need to be seized. Enjoyed your reports. Mira Booey! Mira Booey!

  32. John in Ohio says:

    Enjoyed this greatly, Matt. Wife and I saw a launch in ’89 or ’90–I teared up then and I teared up again reading about your experiences. Keep goin’, Matt, good things are coming to you.

  33. Thanks Mira Booey! You are a lucky luck duck. Where is the Fatstronaut T-Shirt? How about you write part 2 or tell us on the podcast about your visit with your parents and post a pic of them. I am glad you listened to Chris too. XO

  34. tmoli42 says:

    Awesome write up Mira Booey!

  35. Kierstyn says:

    Jessie – you weren’t the only one to “…burst into noisy tears as the shuttle went up…” I was right there with you. And so, apparently, was Matt. 🙂

    Matt, you did a great job with recording this event for the site – it was a joy to read. The pictures are wonderful.

  36. You lucky, lucky guy.
    I can only imagine what it must have felt like to stand there watching the shuttle soundlessly leaving the planet. I know for a fact that I would have cried right there, no matter how many people would be there to see it…

    Lucky guy.
    I really enjoyed reading your posts about this experience and I hope you will start blogging a lot more in the future, keep us informed about space stuff and anything else you think would even just amuse one reader out there. Just one amused reader and you succeeded!

    Keep at it Mira!

  37. David says:

    I know exactly how you were feeling. While I grew up in Marblehead (as we reminisced at NerdMelt last week), I spent the first 11 years of my life in South Florida, 3 hours away from the KSC but still close enough to get a spectacular show every time a shuttle went up. It really is an unforgettable sight, and I’m glad you were able to experience the final one and share it with everyone. Here’s hoping that NASA, SpaceX, and other companies all over the country give us all something equally spectacular in the next few years.

  38. Tim says:

    Great write-up Matt! And great photos too. You are so lucky to have been there. I got emotional several times myself during the coverage.

    I was a total space nerd growing up as well. I had this awesome cut-away poster of the shuttle on my wall and I used to make shuttle-shaped paper gliders and drop them on my sisters’ heads. I even got to go to Space Camp when I was 15. First time away from home on my own, seeing so much cool stuff… it was the highlight of my young life. You should seriously look into the adult Space Camp.

  39. Mike Ives says:

    Matt – that was some mighty fine bloggering you did there and I enjoyed reading it. I know it’s awesome to see and it’s an end of an era and all that, but what a lot of people are overlooking is the fact that in a few days all these people are going to out of work. In it’s heydy the shuttle program employeed over 30,000 people and over the last few years they have all been getting let go. A lot of them Big C’s age and older are still out of work 2, 3 even 6 years later. In roughly 50 years we have seen the beginning and the end of the space program.
    Anyway, I look forward to reading future bloggerings by you from the frontlines when Skynet eventually attacks…..#MiraBooey

  40. Corrie says:

    Thank you for choosing to take pictures – those are incredible.
    Glad you were able to experience this, and stay hydrated through osmosis all at once. How lucky are you?

  41. Shawna says:

    Loved, loved, loved this post so much that I’m actually commenting on here for the first time. I’m not usually the commenting kind! 🙂 So happy you got to be there and loved your story and images.

  42. Deand says:


  43. Kid Notorious says:

    Awesome work, Mira Booey!

  44. Jessie says:

    Oh, Matt, you are a big ol’ bucket of adorable. So glad you got to see this. I watched on television, from where I live in Tampa Bay, and I burst into noisy tears as the shuttle went up. Such an amazing thing to have been able to see it right there, I am sure. I really hope you will talk about it on a Hostful, because this is really a tale worth telling again and again. Thank you for sharing this.

  45. Patrick says:

    I was really hoping to go see this last take-off, but just couldn’t make it happen. I’m glad that I can live vicariously through you Matt. Nice write ups all week long, Mira-booey.

  46. Natalie says:

    Awestruck! PS….my alarms are set at 4:59am ….you’re aren’t alone!

  47. Wesley Marshall says:

    Incredible Matt, absolutely incredible. I hope you write more, you’re a great writer. This was interesting, I sort of want to follow NASA and it’s going ons. Can’t wait for you to recant this on a Hostful episode. #MiraBooey

  48. Jenny says:

    That is just too rad…great write up Matt- glad you had a good time and got to see something so awesome. Can’t wait to see what you’re going to be writing about next (and yes, just reading this made me tear up just a little bit).

  49. Melissa says:

    So ‘effin cool!!! And Matt, I got teary eyed reading this. You are indeed one lucky man!

  50. McBain says:

    Wow, that looks like such a blast(-off). I was watching the launch from thousands of miles away yesterday, all the way from Canada, and I almost felt like tearing up too. End of an era.