July 8, 2011, 6PM, Orlando.
Per usual, but for the last time, I hatched a last minute plan to see the shuttle launch: Atlantis STS-135. Flew to Orlando last night, drove to the Cape arriving at 2A, and settled into a very long stretch without sleep. The whole thing could not have gone better. I had a great time.
Last night, or rather early this morning, NASA was running buses to the Saturn V complex, 3-miles away from the shuttle launch complex. As soon as I got to Kennedy Space Center, I ran for the bus, got a ride to the 3-mile vantage point and started going nuts with my camera. Because of atmospheric conditions (near 100% humidity with light precip and very low cloud deck) and the brilliance of the xenon lights that shine on the shuttle during fueling operations, photos and video of the launch complex were incredibly beautiful. Rays of light cut the night sky, venting oxygen puffed from the beast, the flare stack burning off excess hydrogen blew wildly in the wind, and ghostly halos surrounded the area.
After the visit to the 3-mile site, it was back to the main visitor center for 3 hours of sitting on the ground, in line, waiting for the Causeway (6-mile launch viewing site) buses to board. In the meantime, I addressed and posted envelopes with the STS-133 cachet, completing my collection of cachets for all of the final shuttle flights. The buses started to role to the Causeway a bit before 8A. Once situated at the Causeway, I set up my still and video cameras. Despite the distance and haze, images of the shuttle on the pad were surprisingly clear, the best I’ve ever taken. Despite predictions of thunderstorms that would force a scrub of the launch, the weather held and actually improved significantly in the last 45 minutes of the countdown. The weather variable added an element of uncertainty that was greatly amplified in the last seconds of the countdown. At T-31 seconds, an engineer in shuttle launch control halted the count because of indications that the liquid oxygen vent cap (the beenie) had not fully retracted from the shuttle as necessary prior to ignition. Troubleshooting of the problem consumed more than 2 minutes of the closing 5 minute launch window. Finally, based on visual confirmation, the countdown resumed at the T-31 mark. This was so reminiscent of Discovery’s last launch, which experienced technical problems leaving that shuttle with less than 3 seconds of window as it left the pad. It was reminiscent, too, in that all of us spectators were thrown for a loop. At T-31, you’re ready to start yelling out cheers and good wishes and prayers. Instead, suddenly, the count stops, everything goes quiet and the crowd gets squirrely tense.
I kept my cool this time and got some very nice ignition and roll program images. Also, because the cloud deck was relatively low, Atlantis launched, rolled, and marched straight into the clouds very swiftly (about 40 seconds), offering only the slightest additional glimpse as it transited a hole in the deck. The rocket plume was so impressive, seemed so close, and the intensity of the flame from the solid rocket boosters was bright sunset yellow. Like no other launch I’d witnessed prior, the crowd broke into spontaneous applause (a standing O’) as Atlantis ducked behind the clouds. It was the end of the show and the audience was very pleased even if we were all in denial of one sort or another.
There were a number of special encounters that made this day extra memorable. First, about 2 hours prior to launch, dolphins began plying the waters of the Banana River, right in front of the Causeway. Their dorsal fins would breech the water in graceful curving motions as they patrolled parallel to the Causeway. Then, on the bus ride back to the visitor center after the launch, I ended up sitting next to 3 women who were high-school friends of one of the mission specialists, Rex Walheim. They all grew up together in Oregon, and it was clear from their stories that they all had dated Rex in turns when they were much younger. Walheim had invited all three as his guests to witness the flight.
Through various twists and turns a bit too boring to explain here, I encountered the most extraordinary group of 3 college students from the University of Buffalo. Two of them had been chosen at random to participate in the national shuttle launch tweet-up, gaining them access to the launch pad a few hours before fueling, plus face-time with the astronauts. Two of these students are engineering majors who basically are brilliant. They have a $125K grant from the Air Force to design a satellite: one of 14 such grants awarded to college students nationally. Their project involves the use of “glint radar” techniques to detect the characteristics of objects in space: mass, constituent materials, fuel composition orbital phase. Glint radar in this application is significantly more powerful than conventional radar techniques. Over a unit of distance, glint radar signals degrade 1/r-cubed compared to 1/r-squared for conventional radar (so I was told!). At the Sunoco on Columbia Boulevard, some 9 miles from KSC, we talked for a full hour about science and engineering and future careers which was a lot of fun. We talked about changes in technology overtime. The students complained that University of Buffalo was charging them $250 per use of a scanning electronic microscope for their project. I explained that back in the day, that would be 1982, my college would probably have been incapable of pricing the use of its SEM, which took up an entire room. These students at UBuffalo claimed to have access to 15 tabletop SEMs.
Also, catch this. These two students have 35 U of Buffalo student volunteers providing computer programming support for the Air Force project. When I mentioned that I worked at Sarah Lawrence, one of the students asked in any of our computer science interested students would be willing to contribute time and programming brain-power to the project. He also offered to come make a presentation to our students and faculty saying, “we’re really trying to improve our PR efforts with this project.” I promised to look into this
Also memorable, as was true for all prior launches, was the breadth of geographic, socioeconomic and international diversity in the crowd of spectators. A couple who drove from Bethel, CT. The students who drove from University of Buffalo. A family I met from Louisiana — they had packed their car with food and pillows and made the drive in a straight shot. There were New Zeleanders, Brits, Germans, Indians, and people from exotic places like California and New Jersey. While I suspect that the crowd ultimately was not the 500,000 to 750,000 expected, the turnout was huge. (The drive back to Orlando took 4 hours, all 40 miles of it.) All these people clearly are entralled by human space flight and the extraordinary space technology and engineering this nation has produced over time; all these people, too, were witnessing the end to another element of American exceptionalism.
It was interesting to hear more than a few spectators bemoan the end of the shuttle program, placing blame squarely on President Obama for either killing a viable shuttle program (debatable) or leaving us without a way forward for human space flight (not open for debate). The last of the 17,000 layoffs at NASA and its contractors will occur over the remainder of this year. Coincidentally, the weak June jobs creation report was released by the Commerce Department the same day that the shuttle program disappeared above the clouds for good, taking with it thousands of livelihoods.