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STS-135: All Systems Go!

As the launch countdown rapidly approached zero, STS-135 Commander Christopher Ferguson addressed Launch Director Mike Leinbach:

“Thanks to you and your team, Mike, until the very end you all made it look easy. The shuttle will always be a reflection of what a nation can do when it dares to be bold and commits to follow through. We’re not ending a journey today, we’re completing a chapter of a journey that will never end. You and the thousands of men and women who have given their hearts, souls, and their lives for the cause of exploration have rewritten history. Let’s light this fire one last time and witness this great nation at its best. The crew of Atlantis is ready for launch.”

STS-135 Atlantis Launch (201107080028HQ)
STS-135 Atlantis lifts off from pad 39A, Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

With these impassioned words still hanging in the air, the shuttle Atlantis soared gracefully up from the Kennedy Space Center on Friday July 8th, 2011 at 11:29 am and quickly slipped behind a dense cover of clouds – a spectacular bookend to the space shuttle program’s illustrious 30-year history.

It had always been a dream of mine to stand on Florida’s palm-lined shore watching as a space shuttle erupts out of a billow of smoke, to feel the shock of lift-off reverberate through me. After 30 years and well over one hundred flights into space, this was my last chance to see a space shuttle launch – come rain or shine, broken down cars or endless hours of waiting – I would not be deterred.

Viewing a shuttle launch in person invariably requires a great deal of patience and a significant sacrifice of personal space, but this final launch was particularly crowded with over one million people vying for a coveted unobstructed view. After driving straight through the night, we arrived in Titusville (one of the best public viewing locations) at the crack of dawn and staked out a prime viewing spot along a raised bridge a mere 7 miles from the launch pad. “7 miles?” you say, “that hardly seems like an up close and personal view.” But considering that no humans other than the astronauts themselves are allowed within 3 miles of the pad at launch, 7 miles really isn’t that shabby.

STS-135 launch and KSC tour
The view from our perch included the massive Vehicle Assembly Building on the right (the large square structure) and launch pad 39A on the left (the smudge just above and to the left of left-most boat), all photos unless otherwise credited are by Faith Tucker

The shuttle had been given only a 30% chance of actually launching that day due to weather concerns so we expected the morning’s activities to be nothing more than a dress rehearsal for the following day’s launch, scouting out the best viewing spots and getting a lay of the land. But sure enough, hour-by-hour and minute-by-minute the clock kept ticking down with no sign of an abort; blue skies rolled hopefully in from the southwest, carrying with them a steady stream of spectators eager to view the historic event.

STS-135 launch and KSC tour
Thousands of spectators covered a bridge connecting Florida’s coast to Merritt Island on which Kennedy Space Center resides to view the launch – coolers and lawn chairs were the name of the game

By the time we arrived, Atlantis was already elegantly placed on its launch pedestal, poised for lift off. However it takes thousands of dedicated workers and nothing short of a Herculean labor of love to bring it to this statuesque position.

Upon returning from its previous flight in May of 2010, Atlantis was processed and spiffed up before it made its way to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) on Kennedy Space Center where it was mated to a new external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters. There are many impressive numbers and figure that can be quoted about the VAB, but they all boil down to one simple fact: the VAB is one gargantuan building. If you go on a tour of Kennedy (which I highly recommend if you get the chance), the tour guide will barrage you with staggering examples of the sheer scale of this building, a few of my favorites include:

  • If the Empire State Building were chopped up into small pieces, the VAB could hold nearly 4 Empire State Buildings within its single large cavity
  • Yankee Stadium could be placed on top of the VAB and still have an extra acre leftover for parking
  • The red and white stripes of the American flag painted on the VAB’s southern face (which is the largest painted American flag in the world) are wide enough for a school bus to drive along them room to spare

STS-135 launch and KSC tour
The Vehicle Assembly Building towers imposingly over every other structure at Kennedy. To get an idea of its scale, go back to the panorama from the bridge and remember that the VAB was 7 miles away in that picture!

Once Atlantis and its various fuel tanks were assembled, it was loaded onto the Crawler. This enormous self-powered platform carried the upright shuttle along the 3.5-mile Crawlerway to the launch pad at the blistering pace of 1 mile per hour, if that. Each of its 456 cleats weigh nearly a ton and literally crushed the gravel underfoot as the beast made its way to the launch pad. Atlantis then waited patiently on pad 39A for nearly a month while final tests and preparations were made until launch day finally arrived.

STS-135 launch and KSC tour
The Crawler stands out of the way with the VAB in the background. Notice the gravel Crawlerway coming out to the right – it is the width of an eight lane freeway!

As the numbers on the famous blue countdown clock dropped closer to zero, NASA TV helicopters began tracing their way along the bridge with cameras to record the crowds while fighter jets circled above, ready to intercept any stray birds attempting to enter the air space. Even the official space shuttle Bomb Squad got some action, though thankfully nothing came of it.

STS-135 launch and KSC tour
NASA TV made a couple of sweeps past the bridge

STS-135 launch and KSC tour
Fighter jets circled the area to ensure the air space was safe and secure, what a view of the launch those pilots must have had!

STS-135 launch and KSC tour
The Bomb Squad came to inspect a ‘suspicious package’ that proved to be entirely harmless

At T – 9 minutes, the powers-that-be conferred and declared “All Systems Go” – the launch was on! As the seconds ticked away and the flurry of radio announcements, text messages and Twitter updates made the reality of impending launch apparent you could feel the electric energy of the crowd grow exponentially. Tripods were set up, cameras were checked and adjusted one last time, small children were placed on their fathers’ shoulders, and all eyes turned fixedly to a grey green smudge on the horizon.

STS-135 launch and KSC tour
The crowd preparing in the final moments before launch

In the hushed anticipation a few scattered voices began counting – 10, 9, 8 – then more joined in – 7, 6, 5, 4 – the suspense was killing me, and I realized I hadn’t blinked for minutes and my eyes might appreciate a little moisture – 3, 2, 1…

A time lapse view of the shuttle launch complete with epic music

From that distance the sound is significantly delayed and there is a brief period after the countdown has reached 0 before the movement of the shuttle becomes apparent. But sure enough plumes of smoke and steam swelled from either side as a faint yellow speck grew into brilliant fireball and rose up off the ground. Slowly at first and then faster and faster, twisting, turning and rolling, the shuttle charged upward before slipping into the clouds, hidden from view.

STS-135 launch and KSC tour

Atlantis just before it broke into the clouds and disappeared from view

During its brief but thrilling display there was hardly a sound apart from the chorus of shutters snapping open and closed as quickly as fingers could manage. The entire population of the bridge seemed to hold its breath in full awareness of the significance of the momentous piece of history they were witnessing with their very eyes. Once the shuttle was lost in the low-hanging clouds cheers began ringing out around us, “USA! USA! USA!”.

STS-135 launch and KSC tour
Atlantis bursting off the launch pad

NASA has been a symbol of our country’s ingenuity, resilience, and courage since its inception, and Atlantis’ launch not surprisingly stirred up patriotic pride amongst its witnesses. This final chapter in the space shuttle program is a bittersweet moment for the NASA community as well as for the public for whom the iconic space shuttle represented this generation’s daring forays beyond the protective shell of our atmosphere. We are proud of each and every individual who played a part in the success of the shuttle program over the last 30 years, and we remember those who lost their lives in the process.

A season has ended (or will soon when Atlantis returns to Earth on July 21st), but NASA is still charging onward to explore and understand the Universe in order to improve our own priceless world.

The saga does indeed continue…

Below are a few more interesting pictures from my exploration of Kennedy Space Center the day after the launch.

STS-135 launch and KSC tour
Launchpad 39A the day after launch as a thunder storm rolls in

STS-135 launch and KSC tour
The infamous blue countdown clock located in the media viewing area with the launch pad in the distance almost directly between the clock and the flag pole

STS-135 launch and KSC tour
The view from the VIP viewing area, the bleachers are just out of the frame to the right

STS-135 launch and KSC tour
Not only is Kennedy’s facilities historic and impressive, they’re beautiful! 90% of the Kennedy Space Center is a nature reserve complete with beautiful beaches known to be a favorite destination for astronauts prior to launch

STS-135 launch and KSC tour
Did I mention the alligators? They lurk in the many streams and ponds… That’s either the back of vicious alligator or a not-so-vicious manatee, I’ll leave it up to your imagination

STS-135 launch and KSC tour
All in all, it was one incredible weekend!

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