Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-135 - The Final Launch

A month after attending the NASA tweetup at JPL on June 6, 2011, I was on a plane to Orlando to see the final space shuttle launch in person. It wasn't convenient, it was expensive, it was exhausting. The humidity almost drowned me and the mosquitoes ate me alive. None of that mattered as I arrived at Merritt Island, near Kennedy Space Center, two days before the launch on July 6, 2011.

I shared a house with a number of fellow space geeks, most of whom I had not met in person before. During my three days in Florida, I met dozens of amazing people who I'd previously known only through their twitter presence. They are kindred spirits and many of them have become friends. 

Most of all, traveling to Florida for the last Space Shuttle launch rekindled my lifelong passion for space and space travel and has had a significant impact on my life. This blog is one example. 

Atlantis was scheduled to launch on July 8, 2011 at 11:42 EDT. When I left L.A., NASA predicted a 40% chance of go for launch due to weather. That prediction dwindled to 20% go the evening before the launch. I had no flexibility in my travel plans, I was leaving the next day, launch or no launch. After a sleepless night and no improvement in launch probability, the morning of July 8 arrived. I had resigned myself to a likely launch abort, which I knew was a possibility when I planned the trip. The launch would be visible from the house, so I thought I'd stay and see it from there. So did two of my house mates, Sophia (@phiden) and Gavin (@charmcitygavin). 

At the last minute, we decided to see if we could get closer. Traffic was forecast to be horrendous around KSC. However, we made it to an uncrowded viewing site about 8-10 miles directly across from launch pad 39A at Banana Creek, and found parking, with an hour to spare prior to the scheduled launch time. As the time drew closer, Atlantis remained Go for launch. As the final minutes and seconds clicked by, 11:42 arrived and.... nothing happened. People started to wonder about an abort. We had no definitive information at our viewing site. Then, at 11:45, the tell-tale white plume materialized across the water, followed by Atlantis roaring off into the sky in a fiery, graceful arc. At the time we didn't know that the countdown clock had stopped at T-31 seconds for a 2.5 minute hold to check out a mechanical issue. 

The video below was shot by @charmcitygavin. I'm the one screaming and cheering the loudest. It was a moment I will never forget. After mentally preparing myself for an abort and seeing 11:42 pass without a launch, the realization that Atlantis just went from 20% go for launch to Liftoff!! was overwhelming!

Here is NASA's launch video, which includes the nerve-wracking hold at T-31 ("We've had a failure") and its resolution. 

I will never again underestimate the power of 
"20% Go for Launch".


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