On July 8th, at approximately 11:29 EDT Space Shuttle Atlantis launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on its final mission - and I was there!
The plans to go had been in the works for months and as the day approached and I checked the forecasts in Florida, things weren't looking so good. Due to thunderstorms in the area, there was a 70% change the launch was going to be scrubbed. But we (my dad and I) went anyway and I'm so glad we did.
We made it to Florida by the skin of our teeth - We arrived at SFO 45 minutes before our fight was supposed to depart and didn't get ourselves checked in for another 5 minutes. The desk agent scolded us, pretty much asked for a tip in order to make sure our bag got on the plane with us, and then told us to RUN! We made it to our gate just as our boarding group was being called and my dad finally stopped to put his shoes back on. But our adventure didn't end there. Our plane waited in line for takeoff for 40 minutes! That wouldn't have bothered us so much if we'd had more than a 40 minute connection in Denver. The pilot was able to make up some time in the air, but we still landed in Denver 30 minutes late and we didn't have boarding passes for our next flight. As soon as we set foot in the Denver terminal we rushed to our next flight. The gate agent saw us coming with seat vouchers in hand, said that they'd been waiting for us, and handed us our boarding passes. I'm not even sure he checked the names to make sure we were the right people. Phew!!! We were finally on our way to Florida now the only uncertainty was whether the shuttle would launch or not.
As we boarded our tour bus at 3:00 a.m. the next morning there was still no guarantee that the launch was a "go". Lightning storms were making their way through the area and there had been some strikes near the launch pad. We arrived at Kennedy Space Center at 5:30 a.m. with thousands of other people and the skies were still clouded over. We kept our fingers crossed and proceeded through the metal detectors and on to the entrance. Dad and I wandered the grounds for the next 5 hours before finally picking a spot to sit and watch the launch. Having never been there, we didn't really know where the shuttle was so we just pointed ourselves in the same direction everyone else was facing.
Around 11 a.m., the launch was still uncertain. We all waited with bated breath. About 15 minutes later a voice over the loudspeaker told us that the launch was a go and the crowd erupted in a giant cheer. So many people were on their phones that I couldn't get a text message sent off to my sister. As the minutes ticked by, cameras were readied and people claimed their spots. We listened to the pre-countdown countdown over the loudspeaker and watching the final preparations taking place via the jumbo-tron. 3 minutes and counting...2 minutes and counting...1 minute and counting...30 seconds and counting...and then silence for about 2 and a half minutes. The shuttle was still on the launchpad and the crowd was silent.
Whatever happened, they fixed it quickly and began the 30 second countdown again. Then 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1...and we all watched the sky hoping we were looking in the right direction. I glanced over my shoulder at the jumbo-tron to watch the SRB's ignite and see the shuttle lift away from the platform, then my eyes went back to the horizon ahead of me. And then we saw it...off to the left of where we'd been hoping it would come up. A lady dove in front of me and I had to jostle around to keep the shuttle in my viewfinder as I caught myself from falling over. And then, for some ridiculous reason, I decided to take a picture instead of video. I stopped the video and hit the shutter just as the shuttle disappeared into the clouds!!!
Here's the video I did get...wait for it:
And here's the picture I stopped the video to take...DUMB!
And here's one I got of the smoke plume a couple minutes after lift off...
Atlantis's 12 day mission STS-135 comes to an end this week. The hatches have been closed separating the space station crew from the shuttle crew and tomorrow morning the shuttle will leave the space station for the final time. It is scheduled to make a pre-dawn landing at Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday morning. For more information about the shuttle program and this final mission, visit NASA.gov.