Final Space Shuttle Launch, Continuing Legacy

          Some near to me know that for over a year, I have badly wanted to attend the final space shuttle launch. I couldn’t be there in person today…but experienced it by CNN and NASA Tv in HD over the internet. It was a great experience…and Atlantis passed overhead near to Mn during it’s initial orbit.

          I’m very thankful to have been present as a television viewer. I thought the launch would be scrubbed due to weather but the Shuttle beat the odds this morning…even after a countdown hold at 31 seconds likely confused many spectators. What happened was that computers wrongly sensed that the fueling gantry hadn’t fully retracted seconds before launch. It was only a matter of verifying that it had actually retracted by taking a look through launch pad video cameras before continuing with the countdown.

          A few minutes later, the countdown re-commenced…and everything was go. The main engine’s fired, and then the solid rocket boosters…there was no turning back at this moment. Atlantis lifted away, and cleared the tower.

The N.A.S.A. Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) The largest building in the world by volume. Rockets from the Saturn V to the Space Shuttle have been assembled in this structure prior to transportation to the launch pad.

          I have been transfixed with the space program from an early age. I experienced the first Shuttle launch with NBC commentator Tom Brokaw in 6th grade from elementary school. Visited Kennedy Space Center several times on family road trips…seeing Challenger ready on the launch pad for one of it’s flights…and knowing the indelible feeling of one of those dreaded historical moments…I was walking down the hallway of Tech Highschool after lunch when I first heard a mention that the space shuttle had exploded. I couldn’t believe it…and didn’t until I saw it with my own eyes on cable TV in the library some hours later. I’ll never forget that day.

          The loss of the Columbia and her crew is immeasurable as well. With the help of an early smart phone, I knew of them passing directly overhead one evening not long before their fateful re-entry, but could not see them through a cloudy sky.

          Today is a time to reflect on how our successes in leaving our Earth, almost like achieving flight for the first time, is an endeavor that has inspired our age, and has propelled us forward where reality touches our dreams.

           I was very fortunate to have viewed a shuttle launch. At Cape Canaveral in 1998, my brother Jeremy and I (who a few short years later found himself sharing lunch with none other than Jim Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13, at the South Pole…) ventured down to witness the launch of  John Glenn’s return to orbit aboard the shuttle.

          For those who are a part of our younger generation, John Glenn has a very important place in history. He isn’t the first American astronaut in space, but he is the first American in space to orbit the planet…believe me, there is a big difference. It is the difference between launching straight up into the air (suborbital), and falling back down…compared to achieveing a startling speed in a rocket (about 5 miles per second!), that allows an astronaut to be propelled completely around the world…with no chance of falling back down to Earth unless that speed is reduced and re-entry can occur.

          Well, John Glenn hadn’t returned to space since his only spaceflight in 1962…and I definitely sensed an appreciation to experience this historic launch. My first,last, only…ever space shuttle launch experience.

          The good news is, for the only shuttle launch I attended in person, I did bring my Super 8mm film camera. Yes, filmed in B&W, but that was my tone in that day. Film was on the verge of ending. The chemistry and mechanical reality of cellulose as cinema was begining to fade, and, if you know my story…I pretty much had to represent.

          Beyond that, I’ll share some of the science and my observations.

          Shortley, you’ll see the film I photographed that day. Note: The 747 jet you see in the video is AIR FORCE ONE with President Bill Clinton arriving to view the launch.

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          I rehearsed the movements of the camera a dozen times prior to the launch….I wasn’t gonna mess this up! The opening shot is in slow motion. After the initial lift-off, I switch to normal speed. An initial suprise – the solid rocket boosters are incredibly bright…not easy to look at. It’s not something you can notice on TV. You need to be there and witness it with your own eyes.

          Then the sound…where is it? It depends on how close you are to the launch pad. Anderson Cooper attended the final launch from the press area which is quite close to the pad…about 5 miles away. I like how he shared the same reaction…wow, those boosters are bright! He felt the powerful rumble of liftoff. At the John Glenn launch in 1998, I was more than 8 miles away…and the rumble was only a very delayed noise where I was. Truly, my impression on that day was…where is the sound? After a great delay, it was a very quiet thunder.

          What is amazing, however, was speed and distance. In the film clip…notice when the camera is stationary…and then realize the relative speed the shuttle is moving through the frame. Then, consider that this is a view from below.  The shuttle is accellerating spaceward with incredible momentum. The scale of speed is truly amazing to recognize.

          My final observation as I could still see the Space Shuttle during John Glenn’s second historic launch – the shuttle was at an incredible speed and distance from Cape Canaveral…70 miles downrange, moving more than 3000 mph…but I could see it with my own eyes, glowing like a star. It was incredible…nothing less that I expected, but more than I ever dreamed a moment like this might be. It’s hard to see, but in the last seconds of the film, the Solid Rocket Boosters have seperated and are tumbling away.

          The Shuttle program has been a star to our country all of these years…it has represented what we’ve been, have become, and what we’ve dreamed, and accomplished…the inspiration it brought our generation is that will be missed as we realize we have to let it go.

Join the mission live by clicking this link >>> 

NOTE: Take the opportunity to view this shuttle in orbit with your own eyes. You can look up into the night sky and see it pass by. In orbit it is only a few hundred miles overhead and will appear as a quickly moving star. Use this link to find it! Experience history right where you are.


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