Go For Launch… For The Last Time Ever

The Space Shuttle Atlantis left earth today on not only its final ever mission, but the final mission of the entire Space Shuttle fleet.

Apparently 1 million people descended on Florida’s Space Coast today to see Atlantis off to space. I am thanking my lucky stars – as I do regularly – that I got to achieve my lifelong dream of seeing a Space Shuttle launch in 2007, or only four years before my chances would have run out. I saw Discovery off on STS-120.

It’s very sad, but perhaps not the reasons you might think. I’m not sad to see the Shuttle go, really: it was a wild, over-complicated machine that couldn’t even spell the word budget. But what I am sad about it is:

  • All the people who never got to see a launch up close
  • The fact that there’s nothing to replace it.

(And, for the record, I am SICK TO THE TEETH of reading articles that end with sentences like, “NASA scientists and engineers will now turn their attention to designing a new spaceship.” No they won’t. They’re relying on the Russians to bring their astronauts to the ISS, and they’re pinning their hopes on private enterprise keeping the exploration of space alive. Thousands of people in the space industry that NASA kept going just lost their jobs, and many won’t be able to return to anything resembling the roles they loved so much. If you want to read a researched article about the future of the USA’s manned exploration of space, click here.)

I know I posted this loads of times, but on the off chance that you’ve never read it, here is my account of the Space Shuttle launch I saw. It will be the last time ever, I promise! And although More Mousetrapped will be going out a little late this month (*cough* next week *cough*), it will have a STS-120 theme. And it also involves pizza. Scroll to the end of this post for the sign-up information if you haven’t signed up already.

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“Space Shuttle Discovery was slated for launch at 11.38am on October 22nd, 2007, and Andrea and I headed towards the Cape with hopes of seeing it.

Originally we had intended to get up with the dawn and drive out there on launch morning, figuring that if we were on the road by seven we could avoid the fabled traffic jams of The Launch Day Eastward Exodus. But when we shared this plan with our co-workers, they thought we’d been hitting the crazy pills. Kelly advised us to leave no later than six and Mark recalled traffic backed up all the way into Orlando the last time a Shuttle launched.

Neither Andrea nor I were too keen on getting up in the middle of the night, so at the last minute, we decided to drive out there the night before instead, securing what was surely the last remaining hotel room in the whole of Cocoa Beach.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, having arrived, to then head for the dunes with beer and a box of Oreo Caksters and after that, stay up until four in the morning Googling Taylor Kitsch and Altar Boyz videos, but when our wake-up call came only three hours later it suddenly didn’t seem like all that wise a move.

Outside it was shaping up to be a beautiful day: sunshine, clear skies, no wind. We flicked through the local news channels until we came across live feed of VIP guests arriving at the Cape ahead of the launch countdown. Among them was Star Wars creator George Lucas. Apparently somewhere onboard Discovery, the light sabre swung around in Return of the Jedi was carefully stowed away. To commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the original trilogy – and to make the heads of Star Wars nerds everywhere spin with delight – the prop was going to visit the International Space Station. Also visiting the ISS was NASA Astronaut Dan Tani who, I would later learn, was married to a Corkonian; back home, the newspapers were filled with stories about the launch.

Most importantly, at T-Minus 3 hours and 30 minutes, we were still go for launch.

After the requisite Starbucks stop – conveniently, our hotel had one in its lobby – we drove the short distance from Cocoa Beach to Titusville, the small town that sits directly across the Indian River from Cape Canaveral, with only a vague notion of what we were going to do once we got there.

Miho (i.e. Original Mirage Owner) had told me once about how she’d watched a launch from the McDonalds on US-1, a highway that ran through Titusville. From there she had had an unobstructed view, almost directly opposite the VAB.

Naturally we weren’t the only ones with that bright idea. A mile out, cars and trucks ahead of us began pulling off the road and nudging their way into every available space to the east of US-1 and the McDonald’s lot was already full.

We were wondering what to do next just as we came upon the riverside parking lot of a restaurant called ‘Paul’s Smokehouse’ where spaces were going for ten bucks a pop. It looked like a pleasant place to wait out the morning and it was probably as good or better than anything else we were likely to find further down, so we handed over ten dollars and took up a spot.

By T-Minus 2 hours 30 minutes, we had secured a prime viewing position at the water’s edge. It was a little bit closer to a couple of fire ant hills than I liked but it was going to be a great place to watch the launch, if it went ahead.

I asked the universe to please, please let me see it happen.

Then all there was to do was sit and wait.

At T-Minus 2 hours, we take a stroll back up the street to McDonalds to get some greasy plastic for breakfast. A couple of kindly senior citizens astute enough to have brought deck-chairs agree to watch our spot for us while we’re gone.

T-Minus 1 hour 40 minutes. Andrea and I exchange looks that go some way to convey how much we want to throttle the two little blonde girls to the left of us. They are unrelenting in their test of their grandmother’s patience, asking an endless barrage of stupid questions in whiney voices. ‘What’s taking so long? Why are we waiting? What’s wrong with your face?’

T-Minus 1 hour 15 minutes. I remember that somewhere in my car is a newspaper so now at least one of us has some reading material with which to pass the time. Hungry creepy-crawlies are making their way into our McDonald’s leftovers.

T-Minus 1 hour. We stifle laughter as one of the aforementioned senior citizens warns her one hundredth idiot about the fire ants. Every few minutes someone goes to sit on the patch of empty grass between us and these ladies, thinking they are the first ones to notice this vacant viewing spot.

T-Minus 45 minutes. ‘Be careful – that’s an ant hill.’

T-Minus 39 minutes. ‘Take care there, there’s an ant hill.’

T-Minus 32 minutes. ‘GET OFF THAT DAMN ANT HILL!’

T-Minus 30 minutes. A couple of hundred people are now gathered in the parking lot of Paul’s Smokehouse. (At $10 a car, Paul must be raking it in.) A text message arrives from my mum – she’s out shopping, nowhere near a TV or radio and therefore really of no use to us at this important juncture. If I’d been thinking clearly I could have had her installed in front of Sky News, sending me text message updates at regular intervals.

T-Minus 25 minutes. Some guy has a radio. He stands in the middle of the crowd holding it aloft so everyone can hear NASA’s tinny chatter from across the river. After a few minutes you can totally tell his arm is killing him, but he can’t put it down now. I notice my shoulders are hot to the touch and turning a shade of Lobster Fusion 104. Anyone got some sunscreen?

T-Minus 15 minutes. One small, solitary cloud appears out of nowhere and settles itself directly above where I think the Shuttle is. I overhear someone saying there is a concern about ice on the launch pad, even though this is Central Florida in October and the temperature’s about eighty degrees.

T-Minus 12 minutes. I fetch my NASA baseball cap from the car and prepare to be disappointed. My stomach commences its Olympic tumbling routine.

T-Minus 10 minutes. My palms start to sweat. I wait for someone, somewhere, to tell me the launch has been scrubbed. Is it really possible that this will actually go ahead, that in a few short moments, a lifelong dream of mine will be realised? I can’t help but doubt it.

Besides the annoying children and the odd NASA voice from the radio, it’s all quiet here at the water’s edge. A few years previously I had seen the Knicks play at Madison Square Garden and for the whole of the first quarter, I had had the strange feeling that something was very wrong. It was only afterwards I realised what it was: having never before seen a game that wasn’t on TV, I was missing the running commentary. It was the same here on the banks of the Indian River. No doubt the launch complex, across from us on the horizon, was a hive of activity. I just hoped that none of it was going to result in the postponement of this launch.

A woman who’d been sitting next to Andrea asked her if it was okay to take our photo as we watched the launch. Andrea was wearing sunglasses and the woman explained she’d always wanted to get a photo of a launch reflected in a spectator’s shades. We hurriedly nodded our agreement and turned back to the countdown.

At T-Minus 3 minutes, I start to lose it. I suddenly realised that I hadn’t just been sunbathing all morning, but awaiting a Space Shuttle launch. I’d been thinking at least last night was fun and thereby consoling myself that it hadn’t been a complete waste of a trip. The two-minute point passed and then unbelievably, the one-minute mark. I looked to Andrea. I looked to the guy with the radio. I looked to my phone. I looked to anyone for news that this countdown had come grinding to a sudden halt.

T-Minus 30 seconds came and went. The clock kept ticking.

I began to panic. I wanted them all to stop, to wait a minute while I savoured this, to just slow down a second so I could take it in.

But it didn’t stop. It carried on.

I’d been expecting another disappointment; I hadn’t prepared for a success.

And so now, I was going to hyperventilate.

I closed my eyes.

When someone began counting down in seconds, I opened them again.

Ten, nine, eight…the crowd at Paul’s Smokehouse were on their feet…seven, six…a few voices joined in, amplifying it… five, four…a lump in my throat…three…here come the waterworks…two

Was I really going to see this?

One.

There was a beat.

Then someone shouted, ‘There it is!’

Across the river from us, a flame the size of a building was burning bright. Alongside it on the flat horizon, huge billows of smoke sprang out on either side and started to swell.

Discovery was go for launch.

The fire began to rise.

Within seconds it was higher than the roof of the VAB and climbing. After disappearing into a patch of cloud, it emerged on the other side and proceeded to burn a hazy arc, up and away from us as the earth turned, white smoke on a blue sky.

The crowd cheered and applauded, encouraging the ship and its astronaut crew to ‘Go, go, go!’ It seemed so impossible. It was frightening. Could this thing really burn its way up into space? We tried to help it along. We willed it towards the stars with our hearts.

A loud rumble came thundering across the Indian River, passed through our chests and then faded away behind us: the launch soundtrack on delay.

My phone beeped with a text message from my mother who had evidently heard the good news: ‘LIFT OFF!’ Either she was as excited about it as I was or she didn’t know how to switch to lower case.

It takes eight minutes for a Space Shuttle to carry its crew into space and for a lot of that time it’s visible in some form from the ground. No one moved until the Shuttle became a tiny white dot and then faded completely from sight.

The Space Shuttle was in space.

Sunlight shone on the bright white tendril of smoke left behind in the sky, a reminder that we hadn’t merely dreamed the entire thing. It had really happened. We had just seen a spaceship depart from the earth.

And somewhere inside the Orbiter, just above the blaze, seven people – and one light sabre – were going up there with it.

When I came back down to earth myself, I realised I’d been crying the entire time, and not just delicate, single-tear-escapes-down-cheek crying, but great blubbering sobs of irrepressible emotion. I was officially a mess.

Andrea thought my overreaction was hilarious but even she had to admit it had been a hugely moving experience. It was just worse for me due to the whole Shuttle launch dream business and the fact that I cried at the drop of a hat. (I didn’t just cry at Oprah, I cried at the sixty second promo for Oprah.) The dreams of thousands of people had carried that Shuttle into space and, by being here, I had seen one of my own dreams realised as well.

When Discovery had disappeared, the woman who’d wanted to take our photo introduced herself as the editor of a local Brevard County newspaper. Now we were paying attention. She wrote down our names and where we hailed from, whilst I hoped against hope that nowhere on her memory card was a photo of an overly-emotional sunburned Irish girl with no make-up, three hours’ sleep, and all her hair tucked up under a NASA baseball cap.

I rang my Mum to relay the details and started crying all over again, which wasn’t a good thing because by then I was at the wheel of the Mirage and on the way home.  Mark called from his shift at the desk to say he’d heard it had launched and congratulated me on finally getting to see it. Only then did it begin to sink in.

I’ve seen a Shuttle launch!

On the way back to Orlando, we rolled down the windows and turned up the radio. Life was good. Yet another dream had been crossed off the list; I needed to get some new ones. Poor Andrea had to be in work by three but as I had the day off, I was free to go home and get back into bed.

However, I was way too jacked up on adrenaline to close my eyes for any length of time. Instead, I replayed my launch video.

A few times.

Okay; over and over for the rest of the day. Happy now?

Two weeks later, I drove back out to Titusville to pick up a copy of the illustrious North Brevard Beacon, the editor of which we’d met at the launch.

When I finally located a few copies in a deserted mall not far from Paul’s Smokehouse, I laughed out loud.

On the front page and under the heading ‘Enlightened Discovery’ (clever!), a NASA-capped crying Irish girl held a hand to her heart, face lifted towards the same unseen sight as everyone else around her.

The caption read, ‘Standing on the banks of the Indian River near Paul’s Smokehouse, Catherine Ryan Howard from Cork, Ireland, is overcome with emotion as she watches Space Shuttle Discovery STS-120 lifting into orbit on 22nd October. She said her first launch was the most amazing thing she had ever seen.’ “

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Good luck, Atlantis!

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6 thoughts on “Go For Launch… For The Last Time Ever

  1. michaelharling says:

    One of the coolest things about growing up in America was the Space Program. The proudest day of my young life was seeing Neil Armstrong descend from the Lunar Module and take mankind’s first step on the moon. Sad to think that is all behind us.

  2. Andrea "The American Roommate" says:

    Go Atlantis!

    I still count the whole Discovery launch extravaganza as one of the most fun experiences we had in FL. Good times!

  3. Christopher Wills says:

    Mmm lunch…

    You must have been really hungry waiting for that rocket thingy to take off.

    So what did you have for lunch in the end?

    Seriously. Brilliant. I’d love to experience the sound wave as it passes through the body. In a sad way this is reminiscent of Concord. 20 years ago you could fly across the Atlantic in 3 1/2 hours. Now you can’t. Yesterday you could fly 8 astronauts to the Space Station. Now you can’t. I thought progress meant moving forward not backward.

  4. Jo McDonnell says:

    We were in Orlando last November when Discovery was due to launch but it was delayed several times whilst we were there so we never got the chance, we even got up at stupid o’clock a couple of mornings when it had been rescheduled but the news always came that the launch was being delayed again.
    It didn’t actually launch until sometime this year as it turned out, which was quite a relief in a way because if it had been a day or so after we came home it would’ve been even more gutting, if that makes sense….I’d rather we missed it by months than a matter of hours.

  5. Shelley says:

    Catherine I am still in disbelief that I actually attended the launch today! I’ve read your account before but I read it again this evening with new insight. It is amazing how many of the thoughts and feelings you had before, during, and after are exactly what I felt/feel. Awesome, surreal experience. Go Atlantis!

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