My First and Last Shuttle Launch
It happened. It actually happened despite only a 30% chance of success due to weather. The final space shuttle mission ever began with a successful launch of Atlantis earlier today.
Thirty-six hours ago I never thought I would have the opportunity to witness this historic launch live, but after a sequence of events, a lot of help from my wife, my boys and I made an unexpected trip to watch the STS 135 launch.
Having never seen a shuttle in person before I had no idea what to expect. The day started out rough with a 2:45 am alarm sounding after only two hours of sleep. This was followed by a freezing cold, three hour bus ride from Orlando to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The trip took three times longer than normal because of the obnoxious amount of traffic flowing into Kennedy.
Despite such a difficult start, my boys (ages six and ten) and I arrived at the Visitor Complex in high spirits. Without a moment’s hesitation we were wandering through the rocket garden, playing with the various displays, and watching the Hubble 3D movie at the IMAX theatre. Even with all this to entertain us, we still had plenty of time for spending money in the gift shops.
Finally the time approached for the shuttle launch. Throughout the morning there seemed to be a weird feeling of trepidation floating throughout the air. In the days and even hours preceding the launch, news out of NASA was that everything was going as planned, except for the weather. The forecast for today called for rain and possible thunderstorms. The launch was only given a 30% chance of occurring as planned because of the weather.
All morning long clouds hung around, but no rain, no wind, and most importantly no lightning. Nevertheless, the weather could turn at any moment. So as we had our fun playing around at the Visitor Complex, there was always a worry about the launch being scrubbed.
Surprisingly the hour leading into the scheduled launch time flew by. Before we knew it the clock read 11:20, just a few minutes short of the 11:26 am launch time. From our viewing point, we couldn’t see the launch pad directly but there was a large, outdoor screen from which we could watch closeup views of what was occurring. The moment the engines fired up, the crowd erupted in cheers. It was such a great feeling, not unlike being at a major sporting event and witnessing a record being broken. Admittedly it brought a tear to my eye because I was able to share this moment with my boys.
Within seconds the shuttle came into view as it rose above the trees that blocked our view of the launch pad. I’ve watched plenty of shuttle launches televised online and on television before, but being there live, I noticed a few things:
- Even though we were situated over seven miles away, the glowing red hot exhaust was clearly visible.
- The speed of sound is noticeably much slower than the speed of light. It took many seconds between watching the shuttle launch and hearing the distinctly loud rumble of liftoff.
- It took very little time for the shuttle to reach an appreciable altitude. Of course, with the low lying clouds this observation is slightly skewed, but in comparing how long it takes an airplane to ascend, the shuttle took very little time to reach those clouds and to disappear high into the sky.
Seeing the shuttle successfully launch … Correct that … Seeing the last ever space shuttle launch today will be a memory I will always carry with me. More importantly, my boys enjoyed today’s events. Time will only tell if they also feel the same way as I do.