Friday, July 8, 2011
The Space Shuttle and Me (STS-42)
Kathie was sick as a dog with the flu when Sheila called us to let us know she had pulled a few strings and gotten us VIP passes to the rescheduled launch the next day at Cape Kennedy.
The trick was we were going to have to meet a bunch of other Air Force and Gov't VIP's at Patrick Air Force Base at 3am the next morning to be bused over to Cape Kennedy and the special VIP viewing area for the 6am launch time.
Kathie didn't care as much as I did but went through the whole thing for me because NASA and Neil Armstrong were some of the main inspirations in my life. I even wound up setting up a Neil Armstrong bio-pic years later at SONY TV and TNT, that's how much I love NASA and space travel.
So Kat was sick but we got up super early (1am)and I poured her into the car and drove 2 hours to Patrick Air Force. We got on the bus with a lot of guy in fancy uniforms and lots of medals on their chests. The bus drove us past all the Launch Lookers parked by the sides of the roads and highways into the Cape. There were thousands of people, families mostly, in cars and tons of campers lining the side of the road up and down the coast waiting for the launch.
We get inside the Cape and the bus delivers us to an outdoor area with a several metal bleachers set up facing the shuttle in the distance. Facing the stands were two giant ten foot wide TV screens and a loudspeaker with audio directly from Mission Control. There were two trucks parked behind the stands. One was a food truck with coffee, sandwiches and snacks. The other was a little souvenir truck selling pins, tshirts and other memorabilia commemorating the mission which was STS-42, the 42nd launch of the shuttle.
Upon arrival we are told the launch is delayed due to weather again. It's about 5am at this point. I'm hoping that it won't be a total rescheduling and Kat uses it as an excuse to take another nap. So I'm just killing time chatting with a nice AF Captain and some other officers. I buy some pins and stuff and get some hot chocolate from the truck.
During this time I find out these bleachers are exactly two miles from the launch pad and we are the closest humans to the pad except for the emergency rescue team stationed in a concrete bunker one mile from the pad. I also realize these bleachers are the ones they use to show the people's reactions shots from every launch I've ever seen on TV, like when they used to roll the TV into my classroom in elementary school for the Apollo launches. So I'm really digging this scene and hoping the launch isn't going to get cancelled.
Four hot cocoas and a bagel later they start up the final countdown around 10 am. The speaker from Mission Control is blaring out the numbers and at "1" the engines start up and the smoke starts billowing out the bottom of the launch pad.
A loud rumble in the distance starts and the ground shakes like an earthquake and amid the fire and smoke 4.5 million pounds of Space Shuttle starts to rise off the pad. Strangers reach out to the people next to them and hold their hand. Men, women, officers, civilians are all connected in this one moment as our fellow humans leave this planet.
The shuttle starts to rise and I start taking my pictures (that's one of them above this article) and about a minute or two after ignition a wall of hot air, superheated from the fires of the blast off, hits us on the bleachers like a opened oven. The shuttle keeps going up, up and up into the sky.
Mission Control keeps us informed about the crafts progress even after it's up in the atmosphere and out of site. I'm still in awe. Amazed by the power of the vehicle that I just saw and by the fact the we, just humans, did that.
There's a lot of handshaking and congratulations among the military types and eventually they round us all up for the bus ride back to Patrick AFB.
On the bus folks are happy but tired. Some nap, some just keep chattering about the launch. We finally get back to our hotel around 4pm and we both went back to bed exhausted.
It was one the most amazing, inspiring, best days of my life.
I do hold a special sadness this morning as I watched the last shuttle launch on TV. There is a unique quality in the human condition that sends us places we need to go. Columbus, Magellan and Neil Armstrong embody that quality. It takes us into the unknown on a search for knowledge and enlightenment. I hope we don't lose that and someday future generations get to see the power and greatness of the accomplishments I witnessed. It's amazing what we can achieve if we work together.