The last Space Shuttle launch, up close and personal

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I’m old enough that my childhood technology obsessions predate game consoles and home computers. In elementary school, instead of immersing myself in fantasy space battles, my geekier classmates and I watched the Apollo, Skylab, and Apollo-Soyuz launches, and read of a fantastic reusable spaceship that would arrive at end of the 1970s called a Space Shuttle. Until game consoles and Commodore 64s became prevalent in high school, we had to make do with Star Trek, sci-fi novels, and science fact.

Cut to today, when we have a real space station in orbit that’s been manned for over a decade, and we’re jaded enough to nitpick the details of our fantasy space excursions in games like Mass Effect 2 and Halo. But for us Apollo kids, for the space aficionados who not only remember the tragedy of the Columbia landing but that of the Challenger launch as well, space travel remains a fascinating, exciting endeavor, filled with discovery, wonder, and risk.

Thus, when I found out I was one of just 150 people selected from over 5,500 applicants to view the last launch of the Space Shuttle program as part of the #NASATweetup program, I was beyond excited. I booked my tickets, hooked up with the rest of the “Tweeps” online (ironically, via Facebook), and made plans to witness a historic milestone.

After the jump, milestone witnessing

The Tweetup was an awesome event for anyone with an interest in space. We got a behind-the-scenes tour of Kennedy Space Center, a chance to meet and interview astronauts and key NASA personalities, and a view of the Shuttle launch from just 3 miles away — the closest public viewing point is more than twice as far from the pad.

Launch day arrived with predictions of just a 30% chance of liftoff. We’d had torrential thunderstorms the day before, rain all night, and there was a solid cloud deck in the morning. But as the day progressed, the skies began to clear a bit, and to our amazement we heard the Shuttle was “go for launch” at 11:26 am EDT.
What follows is an excerpt from one of four blog entries I made about the Shuttle launch, covering the actual launch experience. If you’ve already read the blog, skip to the “How to Space Out” section at the end, as I have a few tips for those looking for both real-life and gaming space experiences.

Go for launch

We were behind and to the right of the countdown clock, so we couldn’t see it and we were dependent on the folks behind us for updates. “Two minutes!” Holy Moly, they really were going to launch this thing! My camera all set, remote shutter in my hand (so I could watch the launch directly instead of through the eyepiece), I let the excitement build. It’s going up!

“Thirty seconds!” someone called. I pressed the shutter release on the Canon SD4000 pocket camera that I’d MacGuyvered to the top of my Canon T2i DSLR to capture launch video. I grabbed a couple more shots of the last time a Space Shuttle would ever sit on Pad 39A.

And then…nothing. Soon it became clear that more than 30 seconds had passed. What was happening? Were the astronauts in danger? Was this a pad abort? Did we get that close and scrub? A wave of intense disappointment crushed down on me. I figured if anything went wrong this close to launch, we’d be in for a few days of investigation and we’d miss the launch.

Then, out of a crowd that had grown deadly quiet, someone says “The clock is moving again! Thirty seconds!” Disappointment instantly replaced by a staggering level of excitement! Just 30 seconds? Restarted the video (forgot to zoom this time, darnit), finger on the DLSR shutter release, and ready for launch!

“Ten… Nine… Eight…” I joined in the count. After the crazy storms of Thursday, the bleak prediction for Friday weather, and the unexpected hold, getting to this point in the countdown seemed an impossible goal. But then the white smoke began to billow out from below the shuttle, and the group erupted into a roar of excitement. Atlantis began to slowly and silently rise from the behind the launchpad, riding on a pillar of fire that seemed as bright as the sun. Then, an earthquake-like vibration passed across the ground below us, and suddenly we heard and felt the roar and crackle of the engines. It’s difficult to describe the sensation that close to the pad. It’s not as if sound starts growing, it as if the sound waves are a very strong, very loud wind that rushes to and through you.

Atlantis gained speed, heading towards the cloud deck. As it passed through, for a fraction of a second the clouds around Atlantis looked to be on fire as the Shuttle passed through them.

The applause and cheers, which hadn’t abated since launch, reached a new crescendo as the Shuttle passed out of sight. We took some pictures around the exhaust pillar, the only indication remaining that a Space Shuttle had left the launch pad for the very last time, and then started heading inside to watch NASA TV to confirm SRB separation and a successful orbit.

Seeing a launch from such a close distance, literally feeling the ship leave our planet, and experiencing it with the people who make it happen was truly a moving experience. I felt energized, proud, and just gobsmacked by what the what NASA’s accomplishment. A Space Shuttle launch has never been “routine,” and seeing the people, equipment, and professionalism necessary to make this enormous rocket leave the planet drives that home even further.

As I headed back to the Twent to take a look at my launch pictures and reflect on what I’d seen, I saw my new friends reacting in every possible way. Some were talking at a million miles an hour about what they’d just seen. Some were reflecting quietly. More than a few were moved to tears. I think it’s impossible to see something like that and not be affected by it.

And as Atlantis heads into its final 12-day mission, over 150 people who were already space enthusiasts were moved to become space activists. You can’t watch that amazing space ship head into orbit and imagine that it’s the last time we’ll accomplish something so significant. You can’t see the wonder of a crewed, winged ship that can launch an enormous space station into orbit and be satisfied with a future that limits us to 1960s earth-orbiting space capsules. You can’t look at the accomplishments of the Space Shuttle, the ISS, Hubble, and the other amazing orbiting and planetary satellites and sit back silently while Congress throws away billions of dollars already invested, and universe-changing scientific potential, for short-term saving by canceling the Webb Space Telescope.

How to space out

This may very well have been the last #NASATweetup for manned launch. Who knows what social media will look like by the time we see astronauts rocketing back into space on the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle or SpaceX Dragon? Will Twitter still be relevant?

However, that doesn’t mean you should write off the chance to go to a NASA Tweetup. NASA has held tweetups at Johnson Space Center, JPL, and lots of other interesting places, giving attendees a chance to see the progress we’re making with unmanned exploration, meet astronauts and scientists, and most of all, connect with other space fans. In the days leading to the Tweetup and the short time down there, I made real friendships, and I know there are a number of people I’ll stay in touch with long-term. If you’re a space fan, it’s well worth the cost of an airplane ticket and a hotel room for a chance to get behind the scenes, and to connect with others. Just follow @NASATweetup on Twitter to get the scoop on upcoming chances to attend an event.

For a chance to do a little virtual space exploration of your own, there are a couple of awesome freeware programs you can install on your home PC.

Kerbal Space Program

Put together stages and engines and see if you can successfully create a rocket that can make it into orbit. This is a new program and is still a bit buggy, but it’s a great sandbox experimentation tool. Be sure to check out the Qt3 topic on the game for some tips and for workarounds on some of the early-release quirks.

Orbiter 2010

Where Kerbal Space Program is a rocket launch game, Orbiter is a serious simulator. This freeware program lets you fly the Space Shuttle from launch to landing, and with various add-ons, you can also delve into earlier programs like Mercury and Gemini, do your own Apollo moon shot, or speed things up with hyper-fast sci-fi ships. Developer Martin Schweiger has done an amazing job with this simulator, and it’s well worth spending a bit of time to get up to speed in it.

Finally, you can hear me on this episode of the Quarter to Three podcast. For the full rundown of my #NASATweetup experience, with pictures of the tour and Atlantis on the pad, check out these blog

Atlantis: We’re Go for Launch (Viewing)
#NASATweetup, Day 1, Part 1: The Twent
#NASATweetup, Day 1, Part 2: A Visit to the Launch Pad
#NASATweetup Day 2, Part 1: Ground Control to @Astro_Ron
#NASATweetup Day 2, Part 2: Go for Launch? Really?