Monday, July 11, 2011

A Fond Farewell

I guess somewhere, the fat lady has sung. Other than a hundred and fifty or so more revolutions around the Earth and one more gliding brick landing, the space shuttle program is at an end. The final liftoff of Atlantis this past Friday is the last time we will see a space shuttle blast into orbit.

My husband and I couldn't resist the offer to go watch the finale, so we hauled the kids down to the space coast in hopes of a timely liftoff. The weather was terrible when we arrived in Florida on Thursday evening - pouring rain and thunderstorms. By sunup Friday though, Mother Nature had dried her tears for the demise of the shuttle program and granted us a grudgingly pretty space coast morning on this most final of launch days.

My previous blog post about attending the launch somehow caught the attention of a BBC News producer (the blogosphere is a bizarrely random realm). They wanted to carry live updates from the shuttle launch on their website and feature the impressions of miscellaneous bloggers about the launch and the end of the shuttle era. I was asked via email by a nice woman named Jamillah (straight out of a Beatrix Potter tale) if I would send email updates and pictures from our viewing area at Jetty Park. She also requested an introductory writeup about me and my interest in the space program for their site and then a follow up once everything was said and done.

Anglophile and wannabe journalist that I am, I jumped at the chance, not really having any idea how to accomplish this. My cell phone has been dying a slow death, and I knew my iPad would be impossible to view in the bright Cape Canaveral sunlight. I emailed Jamillah Puddleduck the requested bio and slapped together thoughts on the shuttle program before heading out the door to Florida. Here is the BBC link to my initial writeup.

Following the launch on Friday, I had ample time in the airport thanks to an extended weather delay to pen(?) a wordy follow up on my iPad. Mother Nature was in a much more disagreeable state by that time - spent her good humor on the shuttle. The requested three to four hundred words became many more, blatherer that I am. I don't think I can sign a greeting card in three to four hundred words...

My new BBC friends took my meandering email submission and edited it down to an even more incoherent blurb which you can find here. This is what my original writeup said in is entirety:
Wow! I had a gut feeling that this launch was going to happen today, but I have a lot of gut feelings that don't pan out. When we arrived last night, it was pouring rain, but the forecast called for a clearing on launch morning that appeared to be perfectly timed. I was optimistic. I heard my husband up during the middle of the night checking to see if the fueling of the external tank had gone as scheduled. It had, and we were one step closer to launch.
We awoke to a few glimpses of sunshine peeking through a thin layer of overcast skies. Radar showed a line of thunderstorms well west of Orlando and no threat to our morning. Still optimistic, we threw on our beach gear and hopped on our bikes. 
Our first stop was Grills Tiki Bar for breakfast. It has been a gathering place for locals and NASA folk for years. The flat screen was tuned to NASA TV, and everyone was talking launch.
Next we headed over to Jetty Park where the masses were gathering. It was a festival atmosphere with tripods set up all over and spectators vying for the prime spots on the pier and jetty rocks. We couldn't hear the broadcast of the NASA launch director from where we were, but I checked in with the NASA website and Facebook page for updates. From our own observations, the weather was getting better by the minute - confirmed by NASA.
The only issue we were aware of was a concern with the Return to Launch Site criteria. Weather has to be clear enough for the shuttle to return to the space center for landing in the event of a failure of the main engines. I confess, while I would never wish for a shuttle engine failure, I have always secretly wanted to view a successful RTLS. Launch and landing all in one viewing. It's doubtful that circumstances of a failure would ever allow such a maneuver to work, but in theory, it would be pretty cool. The criteria were ultimately partially waved, and the count continued.
As launch time approached, we all turned our eyes to the northern horizon. As the seconds past the designated launch time ticked away, nothing happened. The crowd waited in relative silence with the same question in all our minds - where's the shuttle? We've seen a lot of things go wrong in the final seconds before liftoff over the years, and it's almost always a show stopper with a short launch window.
Just as we started to despair of a scrubbed launch, we heard shouts from the folks tuned into the launch count.  5-4-3-2-1!!!
Sure enough, there she came like the grandest bottle rocket you ever saw glowing brighter than the sun in the distance. The crowd erupted in cheers as Atlantis shot toward the heavens. The booming, crackling sound followed shortly after - just as impressive as the view. Against all weather odds, the skies had cooperated for this final launch of the pride of the American space program.
As we hopped back on our bikes and pedaled away, the elation of the launch suddenly gave way to a crushing sadness. It was just for a moment, but the finality of it hit me full in the gut as we left the final launch behind. I'm utterly uncertain about what and when the next big thing will be. NASA still has plenty of good work to do for the time being, but nothing will capture our hearts and imaginations like the space shuttle until the US once again sends astronauts into space.
Safe travels, Atlantis. Thanks for the memories.
The slight delay was due to a sensor reading from the launch platform that turned out upon further inspection not to be an issue. I had quit videoing when the shuttle didn't appear and then had to scramble to get my iPad back into video mode. I just caught the shuttle as it came over the horizon, and recorded most of the ascent until we lost it in the clouds.

I quit recording when it went out of sight to save on file size, but the accompanying sound reached us shortly thereafter, prolonging the experience. At fourteen miles from Jetty Park to launch pad 39A and a speed of sound of roughly five seconds/mile, it was over a minute before the sound caught up with the sight. The visual was fleeting, but the rumble and crackle stayed with us as we made our way back to our bikes.

While we were waiting for launch at Jetty Park, I emailed several photos of the scene with some comments to the BBC crew. Shortly before launch, they emailed to ask if I could do some live, on location interviews with spectators via cell phone for their show. My fantasy role-playing game suddenly took a quantum leap from print journalist to girl-on-the-scene field reporter for the BBC! I had no freaking clue what I was doing, but I was game to have a go.

On our way to Jetty Park

People on the jetty rocks and pier

Jetty Park Beach

People lining the Jetty Park Pier in the distance

Alas, my technology failed me and others in attendance as cell phone signals began to drop out from pure system overload. No calls or texts were getting in or out readily in those last frantic minutes before launch. Texts that we sent to our friends viewing from the space center and vice versa did not arrive until ten or fifteen minutes later.

I did manage to send the BBC folks part of the launch video I took with my iPad. It somehow made it across the Atlantic via email almost as fast as Atlantis did by rocket fuel despite the severe broadband congestion. My dream of signing out from an interview with a jaunty "Christy Roberts, Cape Blogger, reporting live from Cape Canaveral for the BBC... " was not to be realized, though...

Heady stuff, but all pure flight of fancy. I am back to the terra firma of reality this week with kids to send off to theater and sailing camps and a house to ready for an in-law visit. In nine days, Atlantis will also be back to Earth, and she too will be left with only dreams of the stratosphere from her Earthbound home on display at Kennedy Space Center. It was fun while it lasted... for both of us...

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