Atlantis Launch Notes: July 7, 6:00 P.M.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER—At T-11 hours and holding all day (as usual, a planned halt). Just got back from the launch pad—and just in time, seems lightning hit within a third of a mile from the shuttle. Mother Nature is stealing the show.

It is getting crowded around here. About a million may be viewing from various venues like Cocoa Beach. Only a few other flights have garnered such interest, such as John Glenn’s shuttle ride and, of course, Apollo 11.

It’s service structure rollback day. It’s also tropical downpour day. Sopping wet after standing in line for the press bus security check in torrential rain. Fortunately, my technology was damp but operable. Interesting how they made everyone lay thousands of dollars worth of gear on the pavement where we lined up for the bus. Security had to go over all the bags with the sniffer dog. I’m not sure how effective that was in the rain, but although we were soaked, we were secure.

Another dilemma: everyone who had gear and one umbrella had to make the choice on shielding it or themselves. Needless to say, there were lots of damp photographers with dry cameras. Then there was me—imagine that, a New Yorker caught without an umbrella.

All the buildup—like waiting to see the bride appear for her walk down the aisle. Finally, the service structure, a multi-ton veil if you will, had been pulled back. Would this photo op be worth it?

OUT TO LAUNCH: The service structure on Launch Pad 39-A is rolled back to reveal Atlantis. It is one of the two pads where Apollo missions headed for the moon. After Atlantis departs, will these pads usher a new space transportation system into orbit and beyond? Credit: Michael Battaglia

My gosh, it was. To see a spaceship poised for takeoff up-front and personal was a first for me. Sometimes something looks larger than life—and when you see it, it’s a letdown. But in this case I was not disappointed. Embarrassed to say, I used to scoff at the shuttle as a glorified space truck that goes nowhere fast, with the aerodynamic aesthetics of a winged brick. And there I stood, star-struck.

We drove along the large double-lane pathway with a grass mall where the massive crawler-transporter transfers the complete shuttle stack from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad. It is one of the largest mobile structures in the world—and one of the slowest (maximum speed is 1.6 kilometers per hour loaded), and was originally designed to carry the moon-bound Apollo-Saturn 5 assembly to the same launch complex. I hadn’t realized that the path is gravel, not paved. Makes sense, considering how hard pavement would have to be to handle all that tonnage. Not a good place to run into a pothole. I also hadn’t realized the last stretch is an incline. Imagine the power it takes to roll the whole thing uphill.

One other trivial item: I also noticed that the grass between the lanes continues up to the base of the pad. Odd how there is green grass where such searing violence occurs each time a shuttle goes up. After Atlantis leaves for the last time, and so many shuttle personnel are laid off, who will cut the grass? I decided not to risk my credibility and ask anyone about this.

So there Atlantis sits, almost serene. The winged orbiter looks like a spacecraft that 1950s sci-fi illustrator Chesley Bonestell would have approved. I had seen the Challenger orbiter before, on the back of a 747 being ferried to its maiden flight. But Atlantis, coupled with its solid boosters and external tank, strangely suggestive of the minarets on a mosque, looks massive and majestic on the pad. So much tonnage to bolt into orbit. Can this thing really fly?

I believe so. And I really hope it does tomorrow.