One of the benefits of not teaching Summer-II session is that I was able to be home at 11am and await the launch of Atlantis. All week they'd been worried that weather would be an issue -- even this morning they were figuring on only a 30% chance they could go as scheduled. Worse, with a million gawkers clogging the roads all around the Cape, if they had to scrub, NASA wasn't sure that their workers could fight the traffic home and come back the next day, so was considering a second launch window for Sunday.
But... there was a suitable weather hole opening up for around 11:30am EDT this morning and once they had a clear twenty minutes for the Shuttle runway in case of an RTLS Return To Launch Site abort, they began the final nine minutes of the count. NPR had started coverage at eleven. But I went to the living room and found TV coverage on CNN and MSNBC. I assume FoxNEWS covered it, too. But I noted that C-SPAN was not, and I found no evidence that CBS interrupted The Price is Right or the other networks. Maybe they did. But if so, they switched to live coverage at the last minute. So very unlike the Old Days of Uncle Walter or Huntley and Brinkley of CBS, NBC and ABC during the early Space Race.
This morning NPR had a piece about a man whose dad worked at Cape Canaveral -- taking his 18 month old son to witness the first launch. The man grew up to become an artist and allowed to view launches from the restricted park near the big countdown clock. Indeed, his usual haunt is to sit to the left of the flagpole. Seeing the countdown clock and the flagpole, I felt an extra attachment, knowing there was a man probably right there to the left of the flagpole, camera in hand, to witness and record and possibly later paint history.
There was a moment of drama -- actually over three minutes -- reminiscent of so many of the early space launches of my youth, as the countdown clock stopped at T-minus 31 seconds. The hold had to do with the gantry arm that caps the external fuel tank. They had to check camera 062 to verify that it was indeed retracted fully and out of the way for the launch.
Then Commander Christopher Ferguson said, "Let's light this fire one more time, Mike, and witness this great nation at its best." One last firing of the three main engines -- horribly complicated and powerful machines -- one last moment of suspense awaiting the three blazing exhausts to all settle into their full power regime. The simultaneous firing of both external solid rocket boosters, followed by the immediate leap from the launch pad. The amazing video feed from the external fuel tank, allowing us to ride up into space. A far cry from the tracking photos from the enormous telephoto lenses, followed by the networks' animation, from the 60s and 70s.
Alas, I have never seen a space launch in person. This last year of Shuttle flights, I had once considered making a trip to Florida -- there was even a SF/F con during the one launch -- but in the last year I have been dealing with a compressed nerve in my leg which has precluded airline travel. So no Mercury, Gemini, Apollo or Shuttle launches for me. The closest was seeing TWO Gemini rockets on the pads at the same time -- Gemini VI and VII -- in November of 1965 prior to their historic rendezvous missions.
It'll be a while before there are U.S. manned space launches from the Cape again. Whether we regain our will to do great space achievements in the future, well, such carping will be reserved for another post on another day.
For the moment, Godspeed Atlantis.