Saturday, July 23, 2011

Atlantis Rising

Even when I’m fully expecting its arrival, a double sonic boom always makes me jump, and this past Thursday morning was no different. At precisely 5:35 a.m., the space shuttle Atlantis passed over my home in Central Florida, its swift but thunderous re-entry into the atmosphere signaling the end of an era. Still lying in bed, heart pounding from the surprise and preventing any further snoozing, I thought about what the end of the shuttle program means to me.

I watched the very first launch of Columbia with my family from the beaches of my hometown when I was nine years old. I stared at the so-obviously-wrong contrail of Challenger from the parking lot of my junior high school. I spontaneously cheered with my high school friends during the triumphant launch of Discovery that restarted the shuttle program. But my favorite shuttle memory is from February 7, 2001.

My husband and I had our third date at that launch, STS-98 of the space shuttle Atlantis. For a February afternoon it was warm even by Florida standards, and I drove to the coast from Orlando with the car windows down, breathing in the familiar marshy scent of the river.

Shuttle launches have remained a big deal to the local population and tourists alike even 20 years into the program, and cutting out of work early to head east was a common occurrence. Reaching the town of Cocoa that afternoon I began to see lawn chairs of spectators on the sides of the road. The bridges at Merritt Island slowed traffic down as more cars pulled off onto any open space along the Banana and Indian Rivers. From the top of the bridge I could see the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center in the distance.

We decided to sit along the boat channel near Jetty Park. With an hour to kill before liftoff we parked ourselves on a beach towel with the other gazers, mostly locals.

For some Floridians, shuttle launches were like weekend football. You’d pile up the car with food and coolers and chairs and spend a few hours tailgating before liftoff. It was another great excuse to relax outdoors. Even if a launch was scrubbed, you’d still spent some quality time just being a Floridian.

As the sun was setting to our left, the moon simultaneously rose to our right. We found ourselves sandwiched between a blazing sunset and an emerging full moon, an amazing combination. The blue skies were clear directly above us, in perfect condition for launch. Florida has incredible sunsets, but this scene was an extraordinary convergence of beauty from one extreme of the horizon to the other.

A few spectators held portable radios picking up the live audio feed from Mission Control. Liftoff was a go for 6:13 p.m., precisely intertwining with the sunset and moonrise. Our spot was about 15 miles due south of the launch pad.

It was then I pondered I was about to witness something that only exists in this one little corner of the world. No other country has a space shuttle. Nowhere else but in coastal central Florida could I sit by the ocean and see the culmination of decades of work by some of the most brilliant engineering minds in the world, in a massive structure of machinery that leaves Earth with such brilliance and power that witnesses to it are moved to tears each and every time.

The voice from Mission Control spread through the air, “10...9...8...we have go for main engine start...5...4...3...2...1...booster ignition and liftoff of the Space Shuttle Atlantis and five American heroes!”

The excitement of the first glimpse of the glow of the rocket boosters caused everyone to point north and cheer. The speed with which it soared upward was astounding. After a few moments we began to hear the roar of the engines rolling in, and then we felt the thunderous vibration of the roar. Even at 15 miles away we got a rumble in our tummy. First-timers to a launch are easy to spot by their astonished facial expressions upon feeling this sensation.

What was most awe inspiring on this night, though, was the divinely created display of light and color. The setting sun cast a rainbow of hues onto the vertical exhaust trail, unlike any launch I’ve seen before. The first stars were starting to twinkle, the full moon was golden in a pink and blue sky, and we all stood enamored by it. This is the kind of experience you want to freeze in time. There was too much beauty happening at once, and fleeting too fast to take it all in.

And within moments it was gone. Only a blurry trail of white smoke was left fading away.

Whether or not you believe in the necessity of space exploration, the billions of dollars spent on it, and the lives lost within it, it is undeniable that there was something magical about this program. I am sad to see it end because it’s been a constant in my life. From grade-schooler to middle-ager, on school trips and romantic dates, I’ve grown up with my eyes looking eastward and upward, wishing “Godspeed” to those American heroes.

This duo of photos of a boy and his dad watching the first and final shuttle launches together went viral last week. It perfectly captures the culture of shuttle enthusiasm that I grew up with on the east coast of Florida.

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