Yesterday, I accomplished one of my lifelong dreams and crossed off a major item on my travel bucket list.
Yesterday, I watched a space shuttle launch. LIVE! It was truly an awe-inspiring experience that literally moved me to tears.
I think I should pause and explain that NASA and space exploration was, and still is, a big part of my life. I worked as a Space Camp counselor in California for two years, living on the base of the NASA Ames Research Center. I was also a counselor at Space Camp Turkey for a summer program. Yes, of all places, Turkey, the country. During both periods I made wonderful friends, had amazing experiences, and met a handful of astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin, Gordon Cooper, and Sally Ride. In short, some of the best times in my life are connected to NASA and Space Camp. Watching a live space shuttle launch has been a dream of mine for years so you can imagine my excitement to finally be there.
The day of November 16, 2009 started when my friend Randee and I left for the Kennedy Space Center at 6:30 in the morning. Luckily, there was little traffic and we made it to KSC in less than an hour. Randee and I had tickets to the launch and prime seating at the Eastern Causeway (the closest spectators can be to the launch pad) thanks to my old Space Camp California friend, Valerie who had a friend that worked at KSC. Daniel met us at the gate and after a very quick introduction, gave us our visitor center tickets and launch site passes. Most of the sites were closing at 10am in preparations for the launch so we rushed off to the Apollo/Saturn V Center before we had to board a bus that would take us to the Eastern Causeway.
You can only imagine my excitement when I entered the Apollo/Saturn V Center. It was better than Christmas in a candy store! There was a presentation on the Apollo program and the moon landing of Apollo 11 actually made me cry. TWICE! The first time was when the video spoke of the Apollo 1 fire and the death of my favorite astronaut, Gus Grissom, and the other when the video showed the live footage of Neil Armstrong taking the first steps on the moon. Man! Space history still has such a hold on me!
The countdown reached T-minus 1 hour and we met Daniel again to get on the last bus out to the Eastern Causeway, which was the perfect setting for a shuttle launch, except perhaps in the cockpit. The Eastern Causeway was nothing but wide, open space and relatively clear blue skies. A launch day couldn’t have been any better. Can you see the launch pad in the picture above? It’s located just left of the center, between the two green islands. It’s the gray speck.
Excitement built up as the countdown reached T-minus three minutes, and me? Well, I was pretty much jumping out of my skin. At T-minus two minutes, everyone who had been sitting and reading, stopped and stood up at attention, each one of us holding our breaths, counting down the last minute.
Finally it came. T-minus 10 seconds, 8, 7, main engine start, 4, 3, 2, 1. LIFTOFF! WE HAVE LIFTOFF OF STS-129!!!
Honestly, the crowd goes wild with me like the ring leader egging everyone’s excitement on. At first, all you could see was a thick cloud of smoke (technically, it’s steam) surrounding the launch pad, but then through all the hazy confusion, you finally see it: Space Shuttle Atlantis taking flight, higher and higher. As Atlantis broke through the clouds, leaving in its wake a trail of pure white, lighting up the sky with its bright orange-red flame, I started crying. It was really one of the most spectacular and beautiful sights I have ever seen. In that moment, I could not have been any happier.
Before I even had the proper amount of time to process all the beauty of the launch, Atlantis disappeared into the atmosphere and all that was left was a clear and distinct trail of its path through the atmosphere.
After several moments, everyone started packing up and piling back onto the buses to return to the main Visitor Center, the sense of excitement still clinging in the air. Even now, just thinking back to that moment, that feeling of awe and wonderment is still with me.
It saddens me that the space shuttle program will be ending soon and that people will no longer have the opportunity to see such a magnificent feat of technology and just plain badass-ness, but I sure am glad that I managed to. And for my 29th birthday no less.
Thank you to Valerie and Daniel for pulling some strings and getting me and Randee tickets to the space shuttle launch! You two are amazing! You have made one of my dreams come true!