Launch Day and Aftermath

Note: I’m covering day one in another post. It’s just the way it worked out.

Lift-off Atlantis STS-135!

Lift-off Atlantis STS-135!

It was over way to quickly.

One thing I noticed the first time I went to see the ponies at the Fairgrounds was, when I turned the corner coming into the grandstand and saw the pack running on the track, the horses looked to be going MUCH faster than I would have ever thought watching horse racing on TV.

Multiply that by at least ten for the shuttle launch. What looks like a huge, lumbering machine taking off slowly while the TV camera tracks its every move is a lie. It happens just about as fast as that bottle rocket taking off on New Year’s but on the grandest scale imaginable. And there are people riding on it.

We were at the NASA press site. I was situated to the right of the countdown clock with a clear view and could hear the countdown audio coming through the speakers in the tent behind me. When they said “main engine start” I saw the instantaneous blast of exhaust billow out of either side of the launch pad. Lot’s of whooping and clapping from the crowd and then the big boosters kicked in and it was off

Atlantis STS-135 going, going...

Atlantis STS-135 going, going...

They warned us not to watch our first launch through a viewfinder. I kept that in mind, but didn’t realize how right they were. As I kept mashing the camera button as fast as I could, Atlantis was well up in the air in seconds and I decided to put the camera aside just as the sound hit full-force. I perceived it like a breeze, an instantaneous cooling on my bare arms and face, and with an imperceptible lag right after, the thunder hit, cracking in my chest.

The next thing that registered was that it was really bright. That was it. “Wow. That’s really bright.” Then Atlantis broke through the cloud cover and it was over.

Poof. Or maybe BOOM. Like that. Over.

The cloud deck kept us from watching it head down range, something I was afraid would happen. But the weather was safe for it to launch, so launch it did. Consolation prize: the shadow cast on the cloud cover perpendicular to the smoke trail below it.

Buh-bye Atlantis!

Buh-bye Atlantis!

The aftermath in the crowd alongside the lagoon was one of amazement. One of my fellow Tweetup attendees, a guy well over six feet tall and built like a linebacker, was bawling like a baby and reached out to hug another one of our fellows. Whether bawling from the shear magnitude of the launch or at the realization that this was the last launch ever or from a similar lack of sleep or overwhelming sense of camaraderie or the totality of it all I don’t know and it really doesn’t matter. This launch meant a lot to a lot of people, not just the Tweetup attendees but thousands and thousands more whose lives and livelihoods revolved around the shuttle program. The vast emptiness I felt in the huge Vehicle Assembly Building behind us we toured on Thursday (yes, it was so empty I could feel it) spoke literal volumes (129,428,000 cubic feet, to be exact) on the finality of the launch.

An empty sign in an empty building means it's all over...for now.

An empty sign in an empty building means it's all over...for now.

But it’s not that there isn’t a future to the country’s space program, it’s just that it’s not super clear, and that there will be a period of inactivity before the next big thing and a lot of people are going to lose jobs in that period. A little bit of the future was on display at the Tweetup site as Lockheed Martin and Boeing both had mockups of their contributions to the Orion program on display. While not as roomy looking as the shuttle, the capsule did look like it had a lot more room to work in than the proverbial FEMA trailer, not bad for something that’s got to spend time in the vacuum of space (and go to the moon, and asteroids and possibly Mars, actual missions in mind when designing it).

Local-area space facilities, the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans East and the Stennis Space Center just across the Pearl River in Miss. will remain in business. Michoud was where the Saturn V first-stage booster module for the moon launches was constructed in ’60s and ’70s and where the shuttle’s main fuel tank has been built. It will be involved with the Orion capsule manufacture and testing along with some of the systems for the Ares cargo rocket systems. I was told, though, that the work was not as extensive as in the past and the workforce needed would be in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Stennis will continue its role in as an engine testing center, testing the newer and bigger rocket engines Ares will require. Here’s some pics of the Orion mock-ups:

Boeing's Orion pressure vessel.

Lockheed's Orion testing model.

The experience was overwhelming. I’m writing this after getting the first sleep I’ve had after 40-plus hours of no sleep and non-stop activity. I want to thank Dvora, Alex and Oscar who were my passengers to and from NASA and Orlando on launch day. I greatly appreciated their company and navigational help as we re-routed around a traffic jam on the way back to Orlando. From Mexico City (by way of Philly and New Jersey), San Francisco and Los Angeles (by way of Puerto Rico), respectively, I loved hearing their stories and hope they didn’t mind my rantings as we had a short tour of off-the-beaten path American rural south. We saw giant alligators (fake), orange groves and what I’m assuming was a sandhill crane. The big bird (looks kind of like the herons we see all the time but at least twice as tall) aren’t as rare as I thought (I told my passengers they would be able tell their grandchildren they saw one) but it was still a neat sight.

"Swampy" on Hwy. 50 outside of Titusville.

"Swampy" on Hwy. 50 outside of Titusville.

I came back to the hotel after a shower and a trip to the get some dinner and could hear the post-launch gathering of some of the group who were staying at the same La Quinta as me. Too tired and grumpy to be good enough company to join in, I did hear, though, over and over, one common theme floating out of the lobby: “THE most amazing experience of my life!” As we say in NOLA: Yeah you rite!

And it was. Overwhelming and unbelievable and two straight days of “Wow!”

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One Response to Launch Day and Aftermath

  1. Patrick L Archibald on July 12, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    Great post. I wish I could have been where you were. I was on the A. Max Brewer Bridge along with a few thousand other people. It was a memory I’ll take with me to my grave. Simply awesome. Thanks, PLA

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