Atlantis Launch Notes: July 8, 9:00 P.M.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER—What a day it was. One to which I’ll dedicate lots of long-term memory neurons. It started tough, though—at 3:30 A.M., with a four-hour trip to the Kennedy Space Center 45 miles away. On the day that my still sleepy eyes would witness a spaceship rocket into the heavens, they would first have to focus for two hours on the bleak behind of a tour bus moving at 0.5 kilometer per hour (slower than the crawler-transporter that hauls the shuttle to the launch pad).

Glad I took the advice and filled the tank as well as stocked up with water and coffee—lots of it.

I heard a million people were spread out along beaches and byways to view the iffy launch—pretty impressive, given there was a 30 percent chance to fly right up to liftoff. As I stopped-started along in conditioned response to the tail lights ahead, the closer I came to KSC, the crowds grew denser. I guess we had the aeronautical version of Woodstock—complete with the torrential rain and dedicated, sometimes fanatical, followers. They don't call this area the Space Coast for nothing. It is Disneyland for space geeks. I'd think that if the whole nation had this enthusiasm, I'd be reporting from Mars today.

But unlike those three heady days of fun and music (and mud and LSD), this festival would only last until 11:29 A.M., and only have one rock star. Also, the show would be over in less than a minute.

When I finally parked in overflow lot, I headed to the press complex to find the atmosphere of a country fair for photographers—tents and cameras. I wondered how many millions of dollars worth of equipment was on the observation lawn. There was even a truck selling space program souvenirs. All that was missing were the funnel cakes and deep-fried everything.

As the countdown clock resumed after the designated hold, I heard an announcement that reminded me of the other possibility—the bad one that could unfold. NASA, like any organization, doesn’t like to reveal bad scenarios to outsiders—unless they have to. I knew they were getting down to the sometimes deadly serious business of a launch during the planned T-9-minute hold. An announcement came over the PA, in the same neutral tone that an engineering manual would have if it could speak, announcing that if there was a “launch mishap” (that is, an explosion), we would have to escape the cloud of highly corrosive and toxic gas that would waft over the complex by taking shelter in the nearest air-conditioned facility as quickly as possible, “and keep your nose plugged and wait for further instructions, which will follow. Thank you.”

Weather aside, I can’t remember a smoother countdown; only a minor glitch here and there. What I hadn’t anticipated was that when one stands outside to watch, there are no play-by-play announcers reading off the sequences, explaining the holds or counting down. It is like watching a football game with the sound turned down—no reference points. It is silent, except for the murmurs of the people and the silent anxiousness in one’s head. When the clock resumed after the last hold, I thought, “Wow, I’m really gonna see this bird fly.”

Tension and anticipation grew as reporters and personnel flooded out of the buildings an onto the outdoor observation area around the countdown clock. The seconds ticked down until the hours and minutes read 00:00—there were only seconds to deal with. So close.

Then it stopped at T–31 seconds.

My heart sank. Would I have come all this way, and waited all these years to come within 31 seconds of seeing a launch? I started to agonize: If it didn’t go by Sunday, I would have to leave for home. A hush fell over the crowd, then speculation, rumors. But all I saw was my “Too Good to Be True” internal dashboard light starting to glow. Was there a last-second component failure? Had a lightning bolt been spotted? Did a crew member get sick? Then I looked back at the clock. T–29! It was ticking again: 29, 28, 27…. I took a breath. Atlantis was going to fly. If all went well, it would be in orbit eight minutes from now.

T–1 second. A plume of white steam shot out of the side of the complex. The liquid-fuel main engine firing had started, but was invisible from this angle and distance. Not so for the solids. They ignited with a yellowish flame and trailed the shuttle as it quickly rose and gained speed, clearing the tower. The shuttle and crew were committed—there is no way to turn off the solid boosters. They are like Roman candles or flares—once lit, they will burn until the fuel is exhausted. And the power—even if the roar hadn’t arrived yet—they were blindingly bright.

I squinted to see them, then gave my eyes a rest by gaping at the massive column of exhaust dropping from the sun-bright flames as the crowd hooted and hollered with approval, only to be drowned out by the roiling, crackling thunder that lagged behind the light, but made up for lost time as it rolled through with a visceral vibration that penetrates the chest.

And within a minute, it was gone. If I didn’t know that a shuttle had just pierced the cloud deck, almost in defiance to the sky for trying to rain on its parade, the sight of the gray-white inverted mushroom cloud it deposited would probably have me heading for the storm cellar and preparing to meet munchkins, witches and wizards.

Enough said. Atlantis is in orbit. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be seen. There are various Web sites, such as Heaven’s Above that give viewing local times and positions of the ISS and the shuttle (among other satellites), and NASA’s site explaining how to do it. Too bad the weather here on Florida’s Space Coast has not been cooperative. This is the last chance to see the chase. Looking at the right time and part of the sky, one can see the ISS pass over, and a few minutes later, the shuttle in pursuit. After they dock, the assembly will have the magnitude of a planet in the night sky.

Time to go home. And soon it will be the same for the shuttle astronauts. It will be a sad day for space travelers, a happy day for museum curators. After Atlantis’s crew stocks the shelves of the ISS then fills the empty Raffaello module with 2,350 kilograms of space station trash, broken equipment and dirty laundry that it will bring back, it will glide and land for the last time. Too bad its last function will be that of a garbage truck.

But I don’t want to end on that note. It would have been nice if the U.S. could afford to have a space station, with space cargo carriers to service it and regular flights to transfer crews, all with designated vehicles. But the shuttle is not one of those vehicles. It is too expensive, too complex, too fragile. Hopefully, after Atlantis touches down, the cold realization that the U.S. is no longer part of an exclusive club of nations that are capable of accessing orbit may help sort out what the government should be doing and leave what is profitable to entrepreneurial investors. I hope NASA returns to its status as a 21st-century Corps of Exploration, in the spirit of Lewis and Clark (President Thomas Jefferson’s moon shot), where profit is measured in knowledge and experience. Let the private sector run the now-mundane space around Earth, chasing dollars at 28,000 kilometers per hour. If this happens, then the shuttle will be seen as an important chapter in a long saga of human progress, not a step backward from Apollo.

Either way, this is the end of a chapter, but not the saga.

Photos by Michael J. Battaglia