The Final Flight of Atlantis

May 17, 2010 • alan


When I was a kid, our family visited the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida. It must have been about 1977. When we were there, we learned about the soon-to-be-built Space Shuttle. I remember buying a deck of playing cards at the souvenir shop — they had an artist’s drawing of what the Space Shuttle was going to look like after it was complete. It seemed like science fiction.

The Space Shuttle program has been active now for three decades. And later this year, the fleet will be retired. With only three more scheduled missions remaining, our family decided to go see the final launch of Atlantis, mission STS-132.

Tickets were sold on the internet, but they always sell out very quickly. I was lucky enough to get SIX tickets to the Visitor Center. I was thrilled… except my friends were expecting me to get NINE tickets! We spent the next two weeks trying to make plans that fit within our new constraint. We decided that our family would use four tickets, and the other two would go to my friend David and his son, Chase.

THURSDAY

We took the girls out of school for two days (with the blessing of their principal), and we made the long ten-hour journey south. Scooby Doo kept us company in the van, and we occasionally checked for launch status updates and photos on Twitter — I was following a group called the “NASA Tweetup”, Twitter users who had been selected to go on an in-depth tour of KSC (it’s like the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory story, golden tickets for the super-special tour, but this one was for space geeks instead of sugar addicts).

We arrived in Titusville with a little bit of daylight left, which we used to scout out the area before finding our hotel way down in Melbourne. We had two full days at the Kennedy Space Center. The launch was on Friday afternoon, and Saturday was free to explore the exhibits.

FRIDAY

Traffic was heavy on the way in, but we finally got in and met up with David and his son. Along the way, our party had grown. David’s college room-mates had found tickets, so we now totaled nine.

We got off to a slow beginning, wandering around the Rocket Garden with no clue what to do first. But we finally decided to split into two groups. Our crowd wanted lunch, and that’s where we found the best bargain of the weekend: a plastic shuttle-shaped drink bottle with free refills. They cost $7 each, but they were worth every penny. It’s a super tacky souvenir that also keeps you hydrated in the Florida heat!

Lunch time was quickly turning into Launch time. At one point, I heard a loudspeaker announce “T minus ten minutes” and I panicked (before I realized that they do this awkward stopping and starting ritual). So we decided to survey the different viewing areas. The Visitor Center is close (7.4 miles), but it does not have a clear view of the launch pad, so they set up large TV screens in two different areas: one by the Explorer space shuttle mock-up, and one in an open field near the Rocket Garden. The TV’s give you a close-up view of the first few seconds after liftoff, and then you get a live view after the shuttle clears the tree line. Both of those areas were very crowded, and there were lots of trees that block the north-eastern sky.

We chose to forego the TV’s for a spot on the walkway behind the IMAX building. We were against the rail overlooking the pond, and that meant we had a clear view of the sky. I listened to my scanner to know what was going on. Audrey held binoculars, and I had a video camera. Foong and Sydney wandered to a shady spot that still had an open view.

Launch time came quickly… without the TV’s, it was easy for the time to sneak up. The next thing we knew, it was T minus 1 minute. I heard the countdown on the scanner reach zero, and then we waited for what seemed like 20 seconds before we saw a searing light shining through the trees. Atlantis finally popped up over the tree line, trailing behind it what looked like molten gold. The light was so bright, it was as if we were watching a movie of the blue sky, and someone had ripped a small hole in the screen, letting in the outside sunlight. It was very surreal.

As the spacecraft climbed, a helicopter circled over KSC, briefly crossing our view of the shuttle. Then came the sound, a low rumble that sounded like rolling thunder. Atlantis passed behind a small cloud, and continued up, building its pillar of smoke beneath it. Watching the smoke shoot out of the rockets and then hang in the air reminded me of the way you drip wet sand on a sand castle to make spires. It flows and then solidifies in place.

Within a couple minutes, Atlantis arched away from us, out over the Atlantic Ocean. Since we were at the bottom of that arc, we could not see the shuttle through the smoky trail. The solid rocket boosters were released, and so the smoke trail ended. When we saw the shuttle reappear, it was a tiny bright dot against the blue sky. It appeared to be heading downward as it curved its way over the ocean. Its straight downward path cut behind the twisted smoke trail that was beginning to be blown into a zig zag shape.

The scanner reported that Atlantis’s progress. It crossed the point of no return, where it could no longer return to Kennedy if needed. Then it was high enough to make its way into orbit even if one engine failed. Then it was high enough if TWO engines failed. Soon it reached 12,000 miles per hour. In just a couple of minutes, it had traveled 600 miles downrange… the same distance that we had spent all of Thursday driving.

Our attention slowly moved back to the ground. Wow. Those six astronauts were on their way into space. And we had been there to send them off.

We spent the rest of the day touring the Kennedy Space Center. We rode the shuttle simulator (which I would describe more as “cute” than “wild”). We saw an IMAX film about “Walking on the Moon”. And we spent a lot of time (and money) at the gift shop.

SATURDAY

As soon as we got back to KSC on Saturday, we went straight bus tour (well, OK, we did stop by the Orbit Cafe to fill those shuttle-shaped drink bottles). The bus tour made three stops.

The first stop was at an observation platform where you could see the Vehicle Assembly Building and the launch pad. This was a great photo spot, and we got to see a movie about how they assemble the “stack” (shuttle + tank + rockets) in preparation for launch.

The second stop was the Saturn V building, where we saw the actual Apollo launch control room, the humongous Saturn V rocket, and a movie about landing on the moon. We had lunch, did some exploring, and we touched a real moon rock.

The final stop on the bus tour was the International Space Station processing building. This place lacks the polish that the rest of the KSC has — it’s tucked away in the back of a drab federal government building, surrounded by chain link fence, and has a distinct “after-thought” feel to it. There are exhibits showing a history of orbiting labs, from Mir and Skylab to the modern ISS. But the main attraction was the mezzanine that overlooks the clean room where the ISS modules are assembled (during weekdays, I imagine).

We got back to the Visitor Center in time to catch one more IMAX movie, “Hubble 3D” (breathtaking). And then it was time to pry ourselves away and start driving north.

We drove as far as St Augustine and then found a hotel.

SUNDAY

Audrey had set a goal to dip her toes in the ocean while we were still in Florida, so we stopped by the St Augustine beach for a quick walk on the shore.

And after that, it was no nonsense for the next 600 miles. The girls did some homework in the car. Scooby Doo was noticeably absent.

To quote my friend Tanner, who saw the previous launch in April: “20 hours of driving. 8 minutes of excitement! TOTALLY worth it!!!” I’ll agree, but I have to add… the rest of the two days at KSC certainly helped tip the scales to the “totally worth it” side.


THE GOOD

  • Endless refills on the tacky shuttle-shaped drink bottles.
  • My favorite part of the tour, shuttle astronaut and NASA administrator, Charlie Bolden’s narration of the Shuttle Launch Experience.
  • The hospitality of the KSC staff.
  • The local ham club, who retransmits NASA launch info on their repeater.
  • The kind strangers on Twitter (@Redshift42 & @ageekmom) who hooked us up with one last ticket.

THE BAD

  • The two viewing places with the TV screens did not have a good view of the sky.
  • The non-standard headphone jack on my Yaesu radio meant I had to hold the scanner up to my ear… plugging in the ipod earbuds caused it to transmit continuously!

THE UGLY

  • That ISS Building could really use a make-over.