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!