The Space Shuttle Experience Part 2! It's a GO!

If you have read my past posts you are aware that I have had a dream to see a space shuttle launch since I was a child. In April my family and I traveled to Florida with tickets graciously given by Senator Johanns of Nebraska to attend the Endeavour launch. Due to a technical glitch that launch was delayed by a couple weeks and since the school has such pesky attendance policies (just kidding!) we were not able to stay or return for the launch.  At the time my heart was broken and I thought I had lost my one and only chance. I contacted the NASA reps that handle the congressional tickets and asked if there was any way I could roll over my ticket request to the Atlantis launch this summer. The Gods were smiling down on me and I was again granted tickets for the Atlantis launch scheduled for July 8, 2011 at 11:26 AM. This launch is the very last space shuttle launch EVER! My very last chance!

We flew to Orlando on the night of July 6th and drove to our hotel on the space coast July 7. All day on the 7th was rainy and drizzly. Thick cloud cover as if we were sitting in a cloud. The news and forecasters were giving the launch only a 30% chance on the 8th and everyone was talking very pessimistically. I was so scared that yet again seeing a launch would be just out of reach. We did plan to stay for a week in case of weather scrubs but the long range forecast wasn't looking much better.

I didn't sleep well the night of the 7th. I checked the NASA computer feed on progress at 2 AM to see if they would even progress with the fuel tanking. They went ahead and fueled up so I tried to get a little more rest. Alarm went off at 4 AM.  We had to meet the NASA bus at the Merritt Square Mall at 7 AM which was about an hour drive from our hotel in New Smyrna Beach. With crowd estimates at near 1 million I didn't want to take the chance of getting stuck in traffic and missing my bus! We headed out about 5 and arrived with no traffic issues about 6. Launch chances were still only at 30%.

We boarded the bus and were taken to the NASA Causeway for viewing. We arrived about 9:30. We found a good spot at the front of the ropes with an unobstructed view of the launch pad. It was still pretty hazy so the shuttle looked awfully small 6 miles away from us! We got some pictures and studied the shuttle and launch pads with our binoculars. The energy of the crowd was fun, everyone so excited and nervous together.
The launch pad is above my older son's head. Pretty small!

Zoomed in on the camera!

Our first miracle happened about 10:30. I was watching the NASA twitter feed and all of a sudden the launch went from a 70% of "no go" to weather was a "GO"!! The clouds had started to part a bit and the haze started to clear off. As we sat there the shuttle became clearer and clearer.  I was simply antsy in my chair thinking this might actually happen! I had a smile plastered across my face and I kept saying over and over "It might actually go up! This is going to happen for us!"

As the hour counted down we got more and more excited. The speaker system set up was announcing all clear on the technical and weather side and all was on track for 11:26 launch! We watched excitedly as 2 minutes to launch the arms from the launch pad were retracted from the shuttle and we could start to see the steam rising from the base!

One minute to launch, I could hardly contain my excitement and then at 31 seconds to go the speakers announced clock stopped! WHAT!!! NO!!! Lots of confusion on the Causeway and everyone trying to figure out what going on. My heart was just heavy and beating a million beats a minute. Please don't scrub this close!

Then miracle number two, the clocks resumed! Apparently the retraction arm sensor showed an error but a camera on the pad confirmed it was safely out of the way and launch was back on! 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 LIFT OFF of space shuttle ATLANTIS!! I watched through my binoculars at the smoke rising from the pad and as soon as the shuttle started to move heavenward I put them down and watched with my eyes. I have watched many, many launches on TV but there were a few things that struck me about being there in person. First, was the brightness of the flames under the shuttle. It was so awesome to see and I can only imagine how incredible a night launch must be! We watched in tears and cheers as Atlantis crossed through the first layer of clouds and then we got another view through the cloud break. Got to see it up for a good minute or so. I was prepared for the delay in sound but it took longer than I had anticipated. Atlantis was almost out of view when it hit us. I was looking forward to the bone shaking sound and I was a little disappointed because the wind was blowing away from us and I think it was diminished a bit. It still was remarkable and it was unlike any sound I have ever heard before. It was very, very low rumble that grew and grew and washed over you. Lots of crackling in the rumble as well. Very unique and something I won't forget!
Not my picture. My photography skills would not have done it justice!
Once the sound passed us and Atlantis was out of sight we all hugged and wiped the tears from our eyes. The kids were really excited and kept saying how cool it was. They were also very disappointed that we couldn't watch another launch in the future. Our feelings were mirrored from most in the crowd. Everyone hugging, cheering, and wiping away the tears.

We rejoiced and took some pictures of the plume trail left behind. It was really neat to see it stay there and expand. We could still see it in the sky when the bus rolled away an hour after launch.
Plume a couple minutes after launch.
My daughter with the expanding plume.

Before boarding the bus I had to sit in my chair and just process and reflect for a minute. I was shaking from the adrenaline of it and still tearing up. The realization that I actually saw a launch in person was hard to grasp. Still 1.5 weeks later I am still in shock that I saw it and it almost doesn't seem real. Not only did I get to see it but I had realized a life long dream. The accomplishment of that feels really good!

I also reflected on 2 people that were partly responsible for my shuttle interest. My Grandma Christensen was always very interested in new technology and she talked often of the miracle of the space program. When I was 12 she took us to Kennedy Space Center which expanded my awe of the shuttle program. My Grandma died in 1997 but I know she was there with me in spirit!

In 1985 NASA announced the Teachers in Space program. Mr. Kevin Falon, a teacher from a high school in my town was selected as a finalist. On January 28, 1986, with teacher Christa McAuliffe aboard, Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch. At the time I was in Junior High and I remember vividly of the announcement over the intercom and the teacher bringing a TV into the classroom to watch the news footage. In September 1988 NASA returned Space Shuttle Discovery to space as the first shuttle after the Challenger disaster. I was in 12th grade at the time and I happened to be in Mr. Falon's Mass Media class at the time of the launch. He brought in a TV and we all watched and cheered. After the launch the class turned to a discussion of Mr. Falon's experience and his love of the space program. Many students commented that he was lucky he didn't get picked and wasn't on Challenger. What really stuck with me was the fact that he said even knowing what happened to Challenger he still wishes he could have been chosen. He was willing to sacrifice to realize his dream. That has always stuck with me over the years. Sadly Mr. Falon died a few years later in a crash of a plane he was piloting. I have thought of him often over the years and I was sad to hear he died, but I take comfort in knowing he tried to live his life to the fullest while he was here and I try and learn from his example.

So with my Grandma and Mr. Falon in mind I realized one of my dreams, to see a launch in person. I am so very fortunate that I was able to share the experience with my husband and children. I am hoping this experience will be something my kids keep with them and use to strive for the heavens with any dreams they may have. They are already talking about what kinds of jobs they can get at NASA and how they can be a part of the next generation of space travel.

Space Shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to land at Kennedy Space Center, tomorrow, July 21 at 5:56 AM. I plan to watch "my shuttle" land which will mark the official end of the 30 year Space Shuttle program.