It finally happened! As some of you may recall, way back in September I was selected to be a part of NASA’s tweetup for the 39th and final launch of Discovery. Long story short, after 115 days, Discovery finally lifted off on her way to the International Space Station on February 24, 2011. We were fortunate enough to be invited back by NASA and their amazing staff to witness the launch from the press area. It’s about three miles from the launchpad and, from what I’ve been told, just about as close as you can safely be to a launch.
As the countdown clock ticked down, everyone was getting situated in their spots for the launch. The edge of the press site was lined with on-lookers both Tweetup and press related. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many DSLRs in one place before. I was armed only with my iPhone 4 camera and a desire to just soak it all in.
I still cannot quite find the words to describe the launch. It was an incredible experience to witness firsthand. I was lucky enough to share it with over 80 of my newest friends while we all stood cheering as Discovery soared into space. The launch wasn’t without its drama though. During the final minutes of the countdown, a Range Safety computer error threatened to delay the launch. The issue was resolved and Discover was able to launch with only two seconds left in its launch window.
The one thing I know I’ll never forget is the sound. The video I took below somewhat captures the feeling, but it was so powerful. The launch begins eerily silent as you see the SSME plume begin to build, quickly followed by the SRBs firing. Then, in quite possibly the brightest glow I’ve ever seen, the shuttle begins to move. Within seconds it’s cleared the tower and performs its roll maneuver. Then you can feel the sound begin to roll toward you. It’s like a thunderstorm of firecrackers and sparklers all tied together. Then it hits you. It’s loud. The crackly rumble is strong enough to induce a little shaking on my part as I feel my shirt move in the wake of the sound waves. After a little while, it fades slightly as the shuttle continues to climb. The plume continues to grow as the shuttle shrinks in the distance. After two minutes, the SRBs separate to another round of applause and the shuttle begins to appear as though it’s heading downward as it goes beyond the horizon.
And that’s it. Eight and a half minutes later the shuttle has reached orbit and we’re all there left in awe. In awe of the fact that we just saw six men and women go into space. We exchange hugs and already look back on what we just experienced. It’s a mix of elation and reflection. Some people are in tears while others shout – but it’s all in joy. This launch stood for more than just shooting people into space. It stood for the experiences that we, as a tweetup group, have shared together. It stood for the hard work of thousands of people through the course of the year to get her ready to fly. It stood for human ingenuity and resilience. It stood for our desire to reach beyond what we can see to learn more about this universe we’re a part of.
It’s a shame that there are only two more launches remaining. More people need to be excited about our exploration of space. I heard mumblings that an estimated 2 million people were in the area for the launch and that is exciting for me to see. I believe we need another “Apollo” to get Americans excited about space exploration again and I hope that these final launches are enough to fuel some enthusiasm. NASA has been doing a great job sharing the joy, and I truly hope it continues.
Oh, and if you’re interested, the Kennedy Space Center currently is allowing people to register for the opportunity to purchase STS-134 launch viewing tickets. Space that close is limited, so if you’re interested, I say go for it. You won’t be disappointed!