With sadness and excitement, off she went! Wow and WOW! Nothing you see on a screen remotely resembles the live version of a launch.
The sound is by far the most powerful of the experience. The snapping and crackling over the bass rumble is severe and visceral. Next, the shuttle's speed of travel away from the tower and Earth is surprisingly fast. In this case it was 90 seconds or so before ultimately hiding behind the clouds. One must be quick with the camera and actually have a game plan to get worthwhile shots.
However, one thing that is lost looking through a lens is the pure, unobstructed view of what is happening. I debated if I even wanted to watch that way, but the photographer in me won. If there could have been a next time I would have opted to take it all in with only the naked eye.
The lead up to the launch was an exciting one starting with a 3 a.m. wakeup. Ouch. I wanted to get to Kennedy in time to see the astronauts get on the "Astro Van" that takes them to the launch pad. That was another quick photo op, but fun and energetic. It was worth the early start and tense clock watching while in traffic en route.
Once that was wrapped we headed back via bus to the main launch viewing and media area. I scouted my photo spot and optimistically watched the Web feeds for weather and other progress reports. Launch was a go. Launch was not a go. It was, it wasn't. Back and forth it went for a few tense hours. Wait, is that a bit of blue sky I see?
Anticipation builds. The countdown proceeds. Is this it? The countdown pauses. Oh no! More tension, but thankfully ... it's short lived. 3...2...1... Main engine ignition! Blastoff!!
After the last clicks of the shutter, I packed up along with my old high school pal, Tim. We eventually wandered over to grab a bite nearby but the one place was closed. By chance there was a BBQ going on close by and a friendly Kennedy employee we happened to meet gave us the required passes. This was not a media related event, by the way, and we wondered if we'd be led off the premises in cuffs. We gambled.
The interesting thing about this BBQ is that it was kind of an employee wrap party and it took place inside the Vehicle Assembly Building. This is where they attach the shuttle, boosters, and main tank to the crawler that transports it all to the pad. The building is enormous, and quite a sight with the huge American flag and NASA logo on it's exterior.
With our tickets, we went in and had a bite. We wandered around. The mood was festive and seemingly upbeat despite the fact a lot of these people were to soon be unemployed with the shuttle program at a close. We felt a little funny for being there, but it offered us a serendipitous insight that brought the launch experience full circle. After just seeing Atlantis go up, we know it had been through here in preparation. I had a lot of respect and compassion for this group of people around me and their contribution to a great launch and program.
With finally viewing a successful launch, reuniting with an old friend, and peeking behind the scenes, this all took on a very fulfilling and meaningful tone from beginning to end. As I left the space center for the last time, I just looked around and quietly offered a mental "thanks" to all that played a role in this incredibly memorable and satisfying moment in time. I am forever grateful.
Thanks for reading, and I wish safe travels to the current and the future space travelers who inspire me and others.
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