Arts/Literature

The launch of STS-135 (from about as close as you want to get)

Sixth in a series

by Michael Pecaut

On Friday, I was one of the million or so people to see the launch of STS-135 live. More than that, I was one of the lucky few to see it from the parking lot of the VAB, 3.4 miles away from launch pad 39A. That might seem like a long way, but trust me, you don’t want to be much closer than that.

Surrounded by NASA workers yammering about previous launches, high school students and undergrads yammering about the next party, and camera nuts yammering about f-stops and shutter speeds, I waited for hours, unwilling to give up my spot on the pavement. No time for eating. No time for the restroom. We weren’t going anywhere. We were all there despite the 70% chance of the launch being delayed, hopes and fears flip-flopping every time a tiny bit of sunlight shinned through the cloud layer.

We couldn’t hear the countdown from where we were, and there was so much traffic with cell phones that connections were spotty at best. A million people were trying to update their Facebook statuses or upload pictures or tweet or text friends. Connecting to the Internet to actually Google something was just about impossible and even though we were closer to the shuttle than anyone else, we had no idea where we were in the countdown.

Two undergrads jumped in front of me. I wanted to smack the hell out of both of them, but I held back. I’d seen a launch before, and by the looks of them, this was their first. So I was willing to give them some leeway. One of them was about a foot shorter than me, anyway. But the other one was clueless and he kept putting his hands behind his head, elbows splayed out to either side, blocking the view of everyone behind him. Finally, I politely told him to drop his arms. Thankfully, he did it with little complaint. Maybe it was the look in my eyes, despite the sunglasses. I’m a painfully nice guy, but there’s a limit to the asshattery I’m willing to put up with.

Someone shouted out “Two minutes!” The crowd went quiet and we all lifted our cameras to point at the blur on the horizon. Through the viewfinder of my ancient Canon digital Rebel + 300mm lens, I was able to make out the shuttle and the scaffolding of the launch pad. I saw the orange external fuel tank and what looked like one of the SRBs.

“Put down your iPad!” someone shouted. “Idiot!” we all mumbled. Most were even less kind. Where ever the idiot was, it didn’t affect me, so I didn’t look.

Someone dove under the rope blocking off the lawn. Security had been kicking people out of there all day, but this guy didn’t care. And he didn’t care about the row of photographers behind him that had spent hours setting up their cameras and checking lighting, getting lined up so everyone had a line of sight to the shuttle over a tiny section of space. “Hey! Get out of there! Get down. The glare off your bald head is screwing up the lighting!” Apparently, he rolled out of the way because things seemed to calm down. I didn’t dare look away to find out.

“One minute!” Great. My arms are getting tired. It’s amazing how heavy this lens can get. “There’s been a delay!” “You’ve got to be shitting me.” “How long?” “I don’t know!” “Three minutes.” “Is that were we are in the timeline or is that the delay?” “Hell, I don’t know.” I looked away for a second but didn’t lower the camera. Everyone else was doing the same. No one was relaxing. “They’re going again!” Back to the viewfinder.

Wait for it. Wait for it.

I saw a spark. It was the explosion that kicked back the bridge. Adrenaline kicked in high gear. I think I took a picture. I don’t remember. I was shaking too much with excitement.

“There it goes!”

The crowd must have cheered, but I didn’t hear it. I started snapping. I watched the smoke rush out across the ground away from Atlantis. Snap snap. Then the intense yellow glare as she cleared the smoke. Snap snap. I heard the power of her solid rocket boosters, like a row of firecrackers going off in the distance over an endless wall of white noise. Snap snap. I felt her embrace as soundwaves wrapped around us, caressing us with her final roar. Snap snap.

And then Atlantis was gone. Through the cloud layer. A thick column of white smoke left in her wake, widening until it looked like it could hold up the sky.

A long-time friend of Scholars & Rogues, Dr. Michael Pecaut is an Associate Research Professor specializing in space-based immunology in the Department of Radiation Medicine at Loma Linda University. Over the past 15 years he has designed and assisted in the development and execution of experiments across 11 separate space shuttle missions. His work has included the characterization of plant, bacterial and rodent model systems across a wide variety of space-related environments including microgravity (Space Shuttle and MIR), hypergravity (Ames 24 ft diameter centrifuge), parabolic fight (KC-135), and radiation (LLU Proton Treatment Center & Brookhaven’s NASA Space Radiation Laboratory). He is currently at the Kennedy Space Center awaiting the return of CBTM-3, the final mouse experiment aboard the final Shuttle mission. You can learn more about the work of Dr. Pecaut and his team at the Pecaut Lab Web site. Also, readers are invited to check out the Mice in Space Facebook.

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