Blogs by E D Detetcheverrie
The Greatest Show On Earth
5/16/2011 5:22:52 PM
Forgive me if I seem a little more disjointed, a tad less coherent as I write this. I am exhausted and thus prone to muddying up my tale.
It was pitch black dark, sky over water, and the air was intermittently scented with the fragrance of crushed sweetgrass as we claimed our seats. To the southeast Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Mercury twinkled brightly. To the northeast powerful twin spotlights illuminated the glorious white hull of Endeavour, named for Captain Cook's tall-masted sailing vessel, as she stood waiting on launchpad 39-A. Aside from the murmuring of the assembled and the ominous thrum of generators, it was quiet, even welcomingly chilly as we stole surreptitious glances of the orbiter through cameras, telescopes and binoculars hours before she was due to take off.
Daylight slowly colored the eastern sky hues of sooty indigo, salmon pink and warm amber. The horizon, seemingly elevated by an uncertain line of distant clouds, was briefly outlined in molten gold just before the sun's first rays broke over the top, and I stood to snap a photo.
Hours earlier, at one am, our bus arrived in the Kennedy Space Center parking lot. We had been fortunate to while away the ride viewing an IMAX film about the International Space Station. Disembarking, I drank down a heady draught of fresh, cool air scented deliciously of bacon. The staff was working hard to make certain our early morning experience would be enjoyable.
Inside the complex, I went straight to the gift shop to purchase the event program I had declined to pick up on our previous visit, somehow feeling then that the launch that day would be scrubbed. I roamed the upper gallery, happy to find all the new items they were carrying, picking up things that caught my attention and putting most of them back, seeking something special. I left with the program, a vial of meteorite fragments, a comic book, and a new black T-shirt. We wandered the Rocket Garden, visited the Early Space Museum, and then I went to try my hand at the Orbital Docking Simulator while Em gave in to the temptation to sample a turkey leg.
Around 3, we made our way through the Robot Scouts exhibit, waiting for our chance to reboard the bus. I had wanted to see the new Star Trek feature they're showing, but I didn't want to miss our chance to nab great seats on the Causeway. Six miles from the shuttle, the closest observation point any of the various tours offered, we sat and waited. I broke down and bought a hot dog at 6, having not eaten since 8 the night before when I got up from a disappointingly sporadic nap.
A dolphin stirred the surface of the waters before us, perhaps investigating the many splashes from all the fish we saw jumping shortly after the sun rose. Shorebirds explored the water's edge, pelicans dove and bobbed, and we all nervously watched an osprey fly overhead hoping it would not lose hold of the fish it carried wriggling above us.
We were supposed to've met two other people upon arrival at KSC, and when we finally were united with them learned they had disembarked their bus, grabbed cheeseburgers, then immediately found a place in line to get back on their bus and fallen asleep there. Aluminum bleachers sat behind the famous countdown clock so many members of the media like to stand in front of during their reports, and we were pleased to find plenty of room there for the four of us.
Radio transmissions between the crew and technicians were broadcast loud enough for all to hear, and we showed some concern when we heard that some minor damage to a couple of heat shields had been discovered. For most of us, it was a our second visit, hoping this mission would not get scrubbed as the last had at the end of April. The shields were repaired and the countdown continued.
As the time grew nearer, every little indication that things would go on as scheduled brought applause from the crowd. People took turns posing before the clock for photos. One guy emerged through the roof escape hatch of one of the tour buses so he could set up his camera on top of it. Parents urged their children to use the port-a-johns so they wouldn't suddenly have to go during the final seconds before liftoff.
You could feel the excitement, the tension and hope as the day dawned gloriously cool and clear. To the northwest we could see the line of a front sailing our way, but NASA communications indicated they were certain it would blow past before launchtime.
At T minus 9 minutes and holding, the clock was frozen, and everyone seemed to hold their breaths. When the countdown resumed, cheers went up and it was becoming difficult to sit still.
With less than five minutes to go, I stood and made certain my Optic Wonder was in focus, prepared to record footage of the event to post online. It occurred to me I would probably not pay much attention to the camera and might not even get the footage I wanted. At ten seconds out I lifted the little plastic Wonder to my eyes and watched vapor begin to form beneath the engines. I never heard them count down completely; I was too enthralled with what happened next.
With grace and precision, 4.5 million pounds of human ingenuity rose improbably, defying belief as well as gravity, bleeding a rent of flame so bright against the morning sky that it was as startling to behold as gazing into a mirror and catching sight of a huge, deep, bleeding gash you'd had no idea was there! The majestic dream of many began to turn as it pierced the thick edge of the low overhang of clouds that was already beginning to weaken, appearing like bright streaks of fireworks through every tiny gap in the sky, trailed by a massively huge, thick vapor trail winding its way to the heavens. Shortly after we saw the gout, I swore I felt the heat from it...six miles away. As it teased us from behind the broken screen of clouds, the stuttering, sputtering roar finally reached us, growing in volume, lifting body hair, as it rolled over and through us and drifted away. I will propose that the closest sound I have ever heard would be the sudden roar of hundreds of Harley-Davidson motorcycles starting up blended with the strangely deafening sound of a factory-sized blast-furnace full of fresh scrap metal...tremendously amplified. I think my heart rose with Endeavour. I was bouyed, joyful, exuberant, overwhelmed. It happened so fast and had been so astonishing a spectacle that it had taken on the dreamy slow-motion of some catclysmic circumstance, the mind trying to absorb so much at once and make sense of it all while surpressing basic animal fear. We could smell the aftermath, and now I can't remember exactly what the odor reminded me of...only that we took turns looking at each other, smiling, acknowledging that we each could smell it. Did I really feel the heat of a rocket six miles distant across land and water? Yes. When I mentioned the sensation to others, they exclaimed that they had picked up on it, too. Did the ground shake? Did the water ripple, did the birds take flight, did the closest flora faint away from the direction of the blast? I have no idea. Those were all things I'd wanted to take note of while turning toward my companions repeatedly to exchange goofy-looking grins of pleasure.
The vapor trail lingered, the countdown clock began recording the minutes of the mission, and with the naked eye we could see the black smoke and steam still drifting upward from the launch site. We heartily growled our approval, lifted fists high and pumped them, clapped each other on the back like we'd been integral to the liftoff. It felt so good to witness this brilliant achievement of mankind, this culmination of our specie's curiosity. It made me feel like there was still plenty of hope in the world and things can only continue to get better.
STS-135, the last flight of Atlantis, and the last scheduled Orbital Shuttle Mission ever, I've heard will be an invitation-only event. We were fortunate to be witness to Endeavour's final launch and that everything went so well. Of course anyone can ride over to Titusville and the Space Coast and see the shuttle from their vehicles, as close as they can get. There's something about a completed vehicle...and more so of NASA'a shuttles than any of the rockets that came before...that takes on an endearment like something comfortable and familiar to us. The shuttles are visually appealing, aesthetically pleasing in their overall design. They look less like weapons and more like airplanes and jets, and therefore like birds or even ocean-going mammals with their blunt snouts, eye-like cockpit windows, flat bellies and perky vertical stabilators. I think this is where some of the disappointment comes from knowing they are all to be retired, replaced by giant bullet or tampon-tube shaped things that seem less friendly to us, more cold and clinical, useful and necessary without that comforting appeal. The Space Program continues, rockets will still be launched. There's plenty of work to be done in space! Meanwhile, the private sector has been working on various projects to not only help further scientific study but also bring lucky visitors into uncharted realms, often suggesting we'll get the chance to ride in more airplane/jet/eagle/orca-looking space craft. Safety and efficiency come first, but we still seem to like the sight of things that retain some organic elements about them. Reminds us of home, I suppose.
I hope I keep dreaming about space shuttles forever. I know what I witnessed today has been burned into my memory for eternity. I still can't believe how lucky I am....
Thanks to everyone whose determination makes the future seem brighter by refusing to allow anything to stand in their way.
This...is Shuttle Launch Afterglow.
I hope I never come down!
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More Blogs by E D Detetcheverrie
Life Goes On - Sunday, June 12, 2011
Nutshell - Monday, June 06, 2011
The Greatest Show On Earth - Monday, May 16, 2011
Cine - Monday, May 09, 2011
What Does It Take? - Sunday, May 01, 2011
Keys To The Kingdom - Sunday, April 24, 2011
Another funeral. - Sunday, April 17, 2011