An account of my experiences at the launch of STS-125 Atlantis, the final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.
When I first received the NASA Museum Alliance invitation from Laurel Lictenberger, Media Manager at the Kennedy Space Center on April 20th to attend the launch with press credentials, I thought it was a joke. My schedule at the planetarium and museum was already booked solid and the trip seemed impossible even if the invitation was real. Some few confirming emails later I was busy moving classes around and begging for forgiveness and forbearance. Within days I had flight, rental car and hotel settled. I was going to my first space launch!
My wife Sally decided to join me and her plan was to watch from Space View Park in Titusville. After a few more emails with Laurel she permitted Sally to join me as my Planetarium Special Events Coordinator, a volunteer position. This was perfect because Sally is the perfect logistics manager to have on your team.
Arriving in the evening on Sunday the 10th, we drove over to Space View Park where we found a few kids playing guitars and a couple of photographers looking out at the Atlantis, all lit up with the xenon lights and more than nineteen miles distant. I thought my heart was going to explode. My throat closed with excitement. I managed to get a poor hand held photo that showed the xenon light stretching skyward like the wings of an angel and the shuttle and tower bathed in gold light.
The next morning we were up at 5 and could only muster enough calmness for tea and coffee before heading over to the media credentials building on SR3. It all seemed real when science newscaster Miles O'Brien formerly of CNN walked in, going through the same paperwork as we were to get our media badges. A few minutes later we were stopped at the last security checkpoint before parking. The officer cheerily called us by our first names and waved us through. I felt like Walter Cronkite!
Walking from the parking lot we rounded a line of trees along the Turning Basin, with the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building) looming over us.
We stopped and smiled as we stood facing the Countdown Clock, flag and grassy area that we had grown up with from the launch of Apollo 11 from launch complex 39. Facing the flag and clock we saw Endeavor on 39A and Atlantis on 39B. Across the basin from us we could see the family and VIP seating area.
Within minutes my media badge kept falling off with each shifting of my camera or binoculars. Frustrating! A half hour later while reconnoitering for the best place to watch the launch I realized that my badge was gone! Sally and I spent considerable time hunting back and forth across the dried lawn around the countdown clock looking for it. Unbeknown to me my badge had been picked up almost immediately and dropped off at the NASA News Center. I spent the rest of the day worrying that I was going to be tossed off site by security. On one visit to the men's room I even bumped into a retired astronaut and saw his eyes go straight to my left pocket where my ID should have been.
We spent the morning watching and listening to everything- the birds constantly flying overhead including Roseate spoonbills, White ibis, Glossy ibis, Osprey and Pileated woodpeckers.
Black vultures used the 500 foot walls of the VAB facing the sun to pick up upwelling air thermals.
Alligators prowled the drainage ditches along the press site. News crews did live interviews and taped promos all around our feet. Caterers brought fresh lunches and chilled drinks to the air conditioned trailers, while the news men preened and coiffed their hair. I had the worst hot dog I have ever eaten but it was at the Kennedy Space Center so I forgave myself.
At nearly 10 A.M. a NASA helicopter came zooming in from the launch pad and I saw Astronaut Stan Love, strapped in through the open door. Along side him was a heavily armed soldier! I Googled this and found that NASA had been threatened by groups who wanted to stop the shuttles about ten years ago because they were concerned with militarization of space and the use of plutonium in space probes. Crazy stuff and I am glad NASA took the threat seriously. Love was later under our stand being interviewed.
Now at 11:30 A.M. I saw a Hercules C-130 aircraft. This was apparently the support plane in the case of a Contingency Abort in which the crew ditches just after takeoff and needs to be rescued by divers. The C-130 also had helicopter refueling lines deployed.
Within moments of this I spotted Chief astronaut Steve Lindsay in his T-38 shuttle training jet flying back and forth for the weather check.
He then did an exciting flyby of the VAB, pacing right in front of the press site.
At 12:42 I saw another NASA plane lift off from the runway, this time a Gulfstream II that headed downrange to check on Abort landing sites or at least for ships and aircraft in the path of an Abort. The excitement was building! Sally had gone off to the NASA news building and told me that I could get my photo taken for an IMAX movie in front of the Countdown Clock. No thanks! I saw people milling around apparently getting ready when suddenly, at 1:24, just 37 minutes from launch a woman collapsed by the Clock from the heat. No wonder! I saw too many people not wearing hats and not sucking down liters of water the way Sally and I were. In fact, I was the only person there wearing a pith helmet and had two compliments on it from NASA badged personnel on it. Of course I understand that their compliments were polite only and they actually were thinking "what a nut". The collapsed woman was quickly tended to by the NASA ambulance but this obscured the clock and canceled the planned IMAX shot. Worse yet of course, the poor victim missed the launch!
Sitting in front of me by now ( I was standing on the top bench of the press bleachers) was Chris Gebhardt from NASA SpaceFlight.com He cleverly brought along a scanner so we were able to hear the launch chatter from the Mission Management Team.
At 1:52 PM the count resumed and I was ready to projectile hurl with excitement. The liquid hydrogen tank is pressurized and the cap is swung away at 2:00:20!!! The main engines start and I capture the first bloom of exhaust billowing out to the East. There is a thunderous roar and the shock-wave hits me and pushes me back against the fence behind me. I feel heat even though it is 93° F out. My shirt and hair flutter and my ears cannot believe the roar followed by crackling. The light of the of the burning fuel is as bright as the sun and since I was warned about this my camera was in manual mode and so the sensor was not overwhelmed. At 2:01:25 by my camera's clock, the Atlantis clears the tower. The photographs get much sharper here as the spacecraft starts to climb above the heat distortion near the ground.
At 2:01:30 the shuttle begins its roll and I capture the exhaust from the three main engines beautifully. At 2:03:32 I get my last glimpse of a tiny light at the end of the vast exhaust trail stretching across the sky.
Attendance at the launch of STS-125 Atlantis on the last servicing mission to the Hubble was an overwhelming experience and one that I am still smiling from. On my return to Amherst College on Wednesday I started right off by adding my experiences into my planetarium presentations. Everyone wanted to know how it felt. What was it truly like? I asked them to imagine the best thing that ever happened to them but it was too vague, too abstract. I asked them to remember their best kiss, their FIRST kiss. That seemed to do it, most smiled and then I said- "It was better than that!"