Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Witnessing the End of an Era

I had the opportunity last week to do some research in person and I'd like to share my experience with you.

I've just returned from Florida where I was fortunate to witness an historic event--the launch of STS-135 Atlantis, the last Space Shuttle launch, on July 8th. It was also personal, because my cousin Rex is one of the mission specialists. This is his third time in space, but it's the first time my husband and I have been able to be there with the rest of the family to watch the launch.

As a guest of one of the astronauts, we watched the launch from the causeway about six to seven miles from the Shuttle (just us and around 20,000 of the four astronauts' closest family and friends). It's funny, though, it didn't feel at all crowded where we were and we really were fortunate to be so close.

The day before, all the weathermen predicted the launch would be postponed. The local news people were all doom and gloom, saying there was a 70% chance of scrubbing due to thunderstorms coming in from the Gulf of Mexico. A couple of hard downpours with scary lightning on Thursday made those predictions seem very likely. Still, we got up at 4:30 in the morning full of hope and headed for the Kennedy Space Center.

We needed to arrive by 7:00 am and though we were only about 16 miles away we only made it with 15 minutes to spare. Traffic crawled along the Nasa Parkway until we reached the security checkpoint. We had a special parking placard and were allowed to continue on; those who didn't have the placard were turned away. A lot of cars were turned away.

It was a day of lines and waiting. First the traffic, then standing in line at KSC for a security check, then standing in line for the buses, and finally, waiting (and napping) on the causeway to either see the launch or hear that we'd have to do it all over again on Sunday. Still, I doubt there was a single person there who wouldn't have gladly returned on Sunday if that's what it took to see the launch--including me.

The day was nothing like the weather people forecasted. There was some overcast, but it broke up fairly early into blue sky and clouds. The thunderstorms never materialized and the temperature stayed in the low 80s (they'd predicted 90+ degrees). Hope--and anticipation--grew with each moment that passed.

I should mention the safety warnings. We were told these after we were on the bus heading out to the causeway. I guess they didn't want to scare us away--not that it would have. LOL! In case of lightning, or something happening to the shuttle, or the unlikely event the winds shifted and blew the toxic rocket exhaust our way before it dissipated, we were to take shelter in our bus. Oh, yeah, we weren't supposed to pass the yellow ropes and walk the three or so feet to the water because of the alligators. I wanted to ask what we were supposed to do if the alligators decided to take a stroll our way, but I figured I'd just head for the bus if that happened. ;-)

Finally, all of the safety and weather checks and pre-launch procedures were completed successfully and the final countdown started. I'd seen video of other launches and I thought I was prepared for what was going to happen. I couldn't have been more wrong. The moment we saw the smoke and the NASA commentator said, "We have liftoff!", I was overwhelmed with unexpected emotion. As the Shuttle climbed into the sky on top of that incredible flame, the sound finally hit us from across the water and it really was like being buffetted by a physical force. I had tears in my eyes as I watched that amazing vehicle disappear into the clouds and when I looked at the people around me I realized I wasn't the only one.

I can't believe this is the last time the Shuttle will go into space. Yes, the technology is old, but it's been around for 30 years. No, wait, what I really can't believe is that the Shuttle is being retired before we have a viable replacement. Can you say short sighted? I knew you could.

As for the astronauts, there's still a mission and a landing to complete. So please hold them in your thoughts until they return safely to Earth. Godspeed, Atlantis!


Paty Jager said...

What a fantastic opportunity! You witnessed a part of history and have a familial connection. Keep any mementos they could be worth something when you're 90. LOL

Paty Jager said...

Oh and great pics!

chanceofbooks said...

Great Blog Debbie! How awesome you were able to be there! And great pics!

Deborah Wright said...

Paty - it was amazing being there! My husband took the pictures, I just cropped them. :-)

Deborah Wright said...

Thanks ChanceofBooks! - (love that pseudonym by the way!)

The pics are my husband's. I took video of the launch and if I can figure out youtube, I'll post it there (eventually) and link to it.

Alice Sharpe said...

Oh, Debbie, I was moved by your account of the launch. My mother worked at Aerojet when I was a kid and so there was a lot of interest in out house about space launches and satellites and all the rest.

I, too, can't believe we're scrapping this program without a viable alternative. It makes me nervous and disappointed in those I've helped elect and whom I think should use better sense.

How wonderful that you got to be with your family and it's true, your husband's pictures are some of the best I've ever seen. I'm going to forward your blog to my husband who I know will appreciate reading your first hand account. And tonight, I think we'll watch Apollo 13! Thanks for sharing.

Genene Valleau said...

Wow, Deb! I had tears in my eyes just reading your first-hand account. So glad you could do this! And thank you so much for sharing your experiences and the pictures.

Christine Young said...

Wow, I will add my comments here too. When I was little my parents always got my sister and me up to watch the take offs. We saw the very first launch and I also remember in 1969 watching them walk on the moon. We were in Florida a couple of years ago and went to NASA. We toured and wished we could see a launch. We wouldn't have been able to though--no connections. What a moving recount of the launch. Thanks so much for sharing.

Sarah Raplee said...

Thank you for this amazing post, Debbie! I, too, am saddened by the turn our space program has taken. I hope your cousin Rex and his crew mates have an outstandingly successful mission.

Deborah Wright said...

Hi Alice! Good to see you on the blog!

I grew up in Fair Oaks and had friends whose parents worked at Aerojet. I remember when they used to test the engines -- what a roar! -- but that was nothing like being the sound of the Shuttle blasting off. :-)

Deborah Wright said...

Hi Genene! You're very welcome. It was definitely an experience I'll never forget! :-)

Deborah Wright said...

Hi Chris! I vividly remember watching the Apollo 11 landing and first moonwalk. We had out of town family and friends staying with us for the occasion and we all huddled in front of the TV in fascination. What a rush!

Deborah Wright said...

Thanks Sarah! I have no doubt Rex and the others are savoring every moment. :-)