The Space Shuttle Atlantis (Orbiter Vehicle Designation: OV-104) was launched for the first time on my birthday – October 3rd – 1985, but that’s not why it’s special. It went into space a total of 33 times, but that’s not why it’s special, either. It was the last manned space vehicle mission, probably in my lifetime, launched from Cape Canaveral on July 8, 2011, and I was there to see it along with my daughter and her family. And that is why it is so very special. I wear its mission patch on my leather bomber jacket, and it’s framed and matted photograph entitled “ONE LAST TIME: The Final Launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, July 11, 2011,” hangs in the entry way of our home. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not a great picture, but It was the last expression of the 30-year space shuttle program, which until it was struck by tragedy, we had come to view almost as routine as an airline flight.
As many are aware, my daughter Kristi, son-in-law Leo, and granddaughter Delaney live on Florida’s east coast about 50 miles due north of Canaveral. And I’d seen launches before from that distance, the first one being a night launch back in the late-nineties. From that far away, what you see is some flame at the time the rockets are ignited and liftoff, then a long, long contrail which follows the shuttle out of Earth’s atmosphere. For that night launch, we simply went over to the beach, which is straight and un-obstructed all the way to Canaveral, and watched the fireworks. One thing that you don’t hear on television, and I’ve never heard reported or commented on before, is the huge sonic boom as the ship leaves the earth’s atmosphere, generally out of sight by that time.
The second launch that I saw was also pretty exciting, coming on the Fourth of July, 2006, when Discovery was launched. That one came in the middle of the afternoon, and the kids by then had moved 15 miles up the coast from Ormond Beach to Palm Coast. It was Leo’s idea – and a good one at that – for us to drive over to Flagler Beach, and time it so we would be at the top of the high bridge over the Intra-Coastal Waterway at the time of launch. If you’ve never seen it, I should tell you that during a shuttle launch, and especially on a holiday, central east coast Florida essentially stops in place to watch the event. That phenomenon seemed to completely un-nerve a young Flagler Beach policeman, who in driving across the bridge himself, thought that he could somehow throw a little weight around and get traffic moving again with the launch only a minute or two away.
He couldn’t, but he did stop to hassle me a bit as I stood leaning against Leo’s truck. “That truck has to move,” he said.
“Okay,” I said.
“I said that truck has to move,” he said. “Move that truck.”
“Not my truck,” I said.
“Don’t get smart with me,” he said, rather forcefully, actually.
At this point, I reviewed my situation and noted that I was on vacation and would be for another two weeks, so what would an afternoon visit to the Flagler Beach police station amount to? So I stuck my head in the passenger window and said, “Let’s review who’s getting smart. You said the truck had to be moved, and I acknowledged that and told you it’s not my truck, so who’s getting smart with whom?”
By that point, Kris, who was observing all of this, was quite convinced that I would be going straight to jail, but the kid simply grunted and moved onto the next car, which would have been about number 28 in a one hundred vehicle line on the bridge. But before he could get snarky with anyone else, there it was: the flame and contrail heading northeast out over the Atlantic against a crystal clear blue sky on the Nation’s birthday. And I’ll never forget that.
As memorable as it was, however, that experience couldn’t begin to match the final launch of Atlantis and almost certainly the final manned U. S. space shot in my lifetime.
We got up reasonably early that morning to head down to the Canaveral Shore National Seacoast, determined to get as close to the launch site as possible. That turned out to be somewhere between two and three miles on a fairly crowded beach. Not close enough to seen Atlantis on the ground, but plenty close to see ignition, liftoff, and to track the shuttle vehicle as it headed out to sea on an almost due westerly heading. The only question that morning was whether the launch would take place at all. It had originally been scheduled to go the day before, but something – weather or a technical glitch – called for the launch to be scrubbed. The problem the next day was the weather itself, which was windy, cloudy and overcast…just inside the ceiling and visibility minimums that NASA demands. And if it couldn’t go this day, it would then be some weeks before the involved astronomical window would open again.
I set up a tripod holding a Nikon body and a 600mm lens with a 1.4 tele-converter. Leo had his compact shortwave, AM/FM radio tuned to Mission Control and was reporting to us – and a group of listening others – on the countdown. It soon became apparent that this launch crew were more than a little determined to fly that day. There was a hold at nine minutes for the weather parameters to be specifically assured. Finally, they were verified as not that great, but “an acceptable risk.” The countdown was resumed at nine minutes and ran smoothly until halted at thirty-one seconds, announced as due to a “failure.” The failure was that the computer would not confirm that the service arm, which swings away from the ship just prior to launch, had been fully retracted, though anyone watching could see that it had. That was confirmed by “camera 64” and the launch commander announced “Press on.” Yeah, these guys were going to get it done and get it done today.
And they did. It was estimated that over two million people watched Atlantis depart the earth’s atmosphere that day. Arial photos showed I-95 as a parking lot with cars stopped in all six lanes, as well as parked catch-as-catch-can on the shoulders and filling the medians. Because of low-lying cloud scud, the shuttle disappeared from view almost immediately after being launched, but then topped out of the overcast, heading straight out to sea. It remained visible for a long, long time and finally after having disappeared, let us know she had left the surly bonds of earth with the expected sonic boom. It was truly an experience of a lifetime shared with three of the four humans I love the most.
Because traffic was a crawl all up and down that section of the coast that day, we stopped for pancakes, to let it clear out a bit and talk over the experience. Something that you just knew without asking, would never be forgotten in any detail.
I’m never confused that Americans live in the greatest nation on earth, although I’ve never been much of a flag waiver…something I got from my Dad who believed that an excess of nationalism can lead to war, and has. That said, the final launch of Atlantis that day touched me very deeply, and just reading about it can cause me to have to rub something that somehow gets in my eye.
And Atlantis was special. As noted earlier, she made thirty-three trips into space with never a hitch. She held the record for the shortest time between missions, once having been turned around and sent back into space in a period of forty-five days. She was supposed to have been relegated to a “parts hulk” several years before her actual retirement, but with the loss of two of the other craft in the program, her life was extended until we completely stopped going into space. In a way they saved the best for last. And at the end of Atlantis’ useful life and the shuttle program itself, she came home. Though earlier slated to wind up as a static display at a park or airport somewhere, in actuality, Atlantis has been put on permanent display at the NASA museum at Cape Canaveral.
One day – maybe on my trip to see the Kids this spring, I need to make a run down there to see her up close and personal. I’ll have to remember to take along some Kleenex.