Wednesday, July 13, 2011

STS135 - The Final Shuttle Launch

It's taken me a while, but I've finally uploaded all the photos and video from the launch. For those living under a rock, that loud rumbling noise you heard on July 8th at 11:26 AM (EDT) was the last shuttle to launch from the United States. All further space exploration will be done through Russia's program, or by countries who give a damn about the future. For now, though, I'll simply tell about our trip for those interested.

My brother took some very good photos of the launch itself, and we took our pictures standing in front of the aftermath:
I also took video of the launch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGDam8fkvcs

The experience was wonderful, and I would do it again in a heartbeat...if there were an opportunity to. My family tried to see STS-58 in 1993, but the launch was postponed. As a result, we were in Epcot Center when Columbia rose up in the distance. We could just see its trail and flame as it rose up over the roof of the "Honey I Shrunk the Kids" building. Nearly 18 years later, I finally got to see it close up with my youngest brother.

We arrived the day before and toured the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, getting to see several Star Trek props, a live show, and even seeing an interview with Peter Cullen (the voice of Optimus Prime) and watching the latest Transformers movie with him. We also bought a few souvenirs...

The day of the launch, we left the hotel at 2am, arrived at 3am, and got in a long line in the dark. The organization there was amazing, and we got through security much faster than I expected. The park only had a few things open, most of which we'd already seen, so we did the shuttle experience ride, looked at the enormous crowd for the bus tour, and decided to just wait for the launch.

We first went to the bleachers set up behind the IMAX building for viewing, and waited there for a few hours while the sun somehow burned me through the clouds. A few rays peeked out, and we were told the weather still only had a 30% chance of being safe for launch. As the time approached, the clouds got thinner and the crowd more optimistic and eager. I have never seen so many ThinkGeek customers in one place (literally, just going by t-shirts alone).

As the launch window approached, I overheard someone say that the best viewing area was behind the solid rocket boosters, and another said that the shuttle would rise near the flags. Not liking the fact that I could barely see the flags through the trees and IMAX building, I decided to vacate the bleachers with my brother, and we went past the trees to find a massive crowd gathered at the Astronaut Memorial and the entire walkway from it to the SRB's, so we waited at the corner of the fence in front of the alligator pond. We waited about 45 minutes there while the count was held the final scheduled time, released, and apparently held briefly, though we didn't hear that part.

Finally we heard the firing chain was armed, and with the igniting of the real SRB's, the 10 second countdown began. At 9 seconds, the crowd was counting down loudly...and quickly, reaching 1 three seconds too early. There was an awkward pause, and then we heard the official "2" and broke out laughing. Then "1", and then "liftoff". We waited, with many cheering, but seeing nothing, then some words I didn't quite hear brought a louder cheer from the crowd and a bright orange light came from the distant trees. Silently it rose up over the trees, skyward right along the American flag, just as I'd hoped when I prepared to video it earlier, and we watched it fly behind a small cloud and disappear amid fading cheers as if it was over. It then rose past that cloud and the cheers renewed as it rose and finally disappeared into a higher cloud.

I stopped recording, thinking it was over. Just as I did, a rumble came, and the ground shook softly. Fish started jumping in the alligator pond in front of us, agitated by the vibration. As it passed, we watched the trail of smoke spread out and grow, and decided on one last photo with us beside it in the picture. And with that, it was over. Before we got near the park entrance, the shuttle had left the atmosphere and was over another country. We met up with my boss and her father, then left to get much-needed sleep, barely able to stay awake for the two hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic before finally our path diverged from the bulk of the crowd and we drove back the last 40 minutes of our normal hour drive at regular speed. Before I could sleep, the shuttle had made it around the whole Earth already.

With the extra time of the shuttle taking off as scheduled instead of late like I feared, we caught my brother's favorite band, The Protomen, in concert in Nashville the next evening, then woke up late and saw the Parthenon replica, then drove home. All in all, it could hardly have been a better trip.