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Thirty Years of Flight: Space Shuttle

This is a bit off my usual posts about indie publishing, but as I’ve been a close follower of the Space Shuttle program since its inception, I didn’t want to let the next days go by without paying tribute to the remarkable and inspiring craft that is the Space Shuttle.

I remember as a kid watching the moon landing sitting on the floor in front of the TV console at eye level and Neil Armstrong step-hopping off the ladder. I don’t think I heard what he said because everyone in the room was talking about him being on the moon! Of course I heard the famous line later, but as a kid I just thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen, watching those astronauts bounce around up there. I would go outside and look up at the moon and know that we were there. It was an exciting time.

I watched a lot of Apollo rockets lift off. I watched astronauts play golf and ride the moon buggy around. It all seeped into my consciousness and stayed there and inspired me throughout my life to look to the stars and dream.

I remembered thinking when Apollo was cancelled what a terrible shame it was. We humans are meant for exploration, for trying new and daring things. It’s why we first set off out of our caves, to find a better place, to see what was over that crest of hills or on the other side of those mountains. Exploring space is a natural and necessary extension of the human experience.

I was sad and disappointed when we cancelled the Apollo missions to the moon, but then along came the Space Shuttle and I thought, oh this is going to be different from anything we’ve ever done. I avidly watched for progress reports, waiting for the day NASA would bind us all together again with the majestic launch of this new vehicle. It was and is the First Space Ship. I’ve never thought of the old capsules as a space ship, even though they went up and then came back down. They didn’t have engines of their own, those capsules. You couldn’t fly them, not even as a brick of a glider. The Space Shuttle, now that was the real deal. It required a pilot and that meant space ship to me.

When Columbia lifted off for the first time April 12, 1981, I watched like millions of others as she lifted into to the sky, holding my breath for a good two minutes until I knew they were safely on their way. I was glued to the TV again when Hubble was delivered, and again when Hubble was repaired. I went to Huntsville one year and saw one of the ISS modules being built in a clean room with people dressed head to toe in white.

I took a trip to Florida another year, for the ultimate experience. A shuttle launch.

I went to the Kennedy Space Center and watched from the causeway as Space Shuttle Discovery flew like an arrow to the skies. It was honestly the most amazing thing to see, to feel, to hear and boy, do you hear it! I was six miles away and it was still incredibly loud. From that vantage point the shuttle is hardly visible, an inch tall on the distant horizon and there’s only a small spark visible when the engines ignite. That spark is followed by a giant plume of smoke, billowing out around the shuttle just like you see on TV. And then the spacecraft is off the launch pad, ahead of the pillars of smoke, shooting out over the ocean like a bullet. The speed of the thing isn’t conveyed from watching on TV, because the cameras follow the shuttle all the way up now. But when you are there in person, the first thing that strikes you is how fast this massive ship is moving up into the sky. Watching it, reminds us of the incredible things we can accomplish if we try hard enough.

The next thing that strikes you is the sound. At first, for several seconds anyway, you can hear the people around you cheering, you can hear the loudspeakers as the announcer explains what the shuttle is doing, rolling, giving the altitude and speed and then…the sound rolls at you, building around you until you are completely enveloped in this roar of noise that goes inside your body like listening to a subwoofer at a Who concert, only more than that! You think, damn, that’s loud! and you laugh. It’s stunning to all your senses. It is a sound of immense power, jarring through you. It is awesome.

And then, it’s gone. The sound rolls away and the shuttle has departed this earth. In two minutes, it’s gone and all that’s left is a large, strangely stationary column of smoke that lingers for quite some time. Really, it takes about 8 minutes for the space shuttle to reach earth orbit, but there in person, watching a launch, it is gone in an extraordinarily short amount of time.

I’ll watch the ISS streak by overhead on occasion and be amazed by the pictures of the cosmos that come from Hubble and the array of other telescopes we now have on orbit. On July 8th, or 9th or 10th depending on the weather, I will watch from my living room this time, for the last time, as Shuttle Atlantis follows the same path to the heavens. I will surely miss the sense of awe that has pulled me toward the stars for the last thirty years. I think it will be a long time until we are awed again and humbled by such an incredible achievement.

Safe travels to the crew of Atlantis!

For more information on the Flight of STS-135, Shuttle Atlantis, please go to nasa.gov

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