Eyewitness to space shuttle history

The final ascent of Atlantis brings tears, joy and hope for the future of space flight

Yahoo Contributor Network

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- I just watched as Space Shuttle Atlantis went up to the skies atop a column of fire. She was bright and beautiful and clean, and now she has sailed into the history books as the last orbiter to be launched in the U.S. space shuttle program.

At 11:26 a.m. ET today, all of us here watching the launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida -- a mix of press, VIPs, Tweetup attendees, families, and friends of the shuttle crews -- were united into a cult of shuttle worship. The countdown progressed smoothly, even though we'd been warned there was only a 30 percent chance of a launch (due to weather issues). Ultimately that didn't matter. The shuttle launch director decided to press ahead, and so we waited with amazingly patient enthusiasm. And, much to our delight and relief, the weather cooperated.

As we got closer to launch time, I could feel the tension rise among the more than 2,000 people standing across the area where we congregated to watch. I know I was incredibly nervous.

Waiting for a launch is like no other experience. You know when it's supposed to happen, and there's a countdown clock to remind you. But the waiting seems almost unbearable. Minutes and seconds tick by, and you know it's getting closer and closer. Out on the pad and in a number of places around the launch area, hundreds of people work through checklists and procedures, constantly checking each piece of the launch sequence that is their responsibility. Those of us who are familiar with the systems know that there are millions of pieces of the shuttle puzzle, and that each piece has to function perfectly to assure a picture-perfect launch.

Thirty-one seconds before the scheduled launch time, the countdown went into a hold. I heard a collective gasp go up from the crowd. What? What happened? Will it scrub? You could hear the questions welling up, and in my own heart, I was so afraid something had gone wrong. But, after a minute or so, they resumed the count after resolving a small issue and we all exhaled. I didn't even know I was holding my breath!

Then, the candle lit under Atlantis, and with a communal yell of "Go! Go! Go!" the several thousand of us screamed our encouragement. She cleared the tower and was on her way, riding up the brightest pillar of fire I've ever seen in a shuttle launch. Our throats opened up in a collective gasp and a roaring shout that you could hear echo off nearby buildings. And, within seconds, she was piercing the high-altitude cloud cover, the sound of her rocket blast rapping out from the pad. I could feel it beating against my chest, and in that moment, I raised both my arms in salute to Atlantis and let out a long, heartfelt "Yeahhhhhh!!!! Baby!!!!!" It was primal and thrilling, and I found myself blinking back tears of joy at the beauty of it all. And, to be honest, I was crying because this is the close of an era in NASA space flight. For 30 years, we've always had shuttles flying to space. And now, we don't.

So, this is it, the last space shuttle launch. Millions of words have been written about it in the past few weeks in newspapers, online, and in TV documentaries. It's a momentous event, a happening, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, just like the first shuttle launch was 30 years ago, on April 12, 1981.

At the same time, something remarkable in space flight history is now history. At the moment when Atlantis roared away from the pad, that fact was on our minds. And that's why we were all united in one voice, urging her on. I hope it's not the last time that such a group of people will open their hearts to the beauty of a spectacular launch.

What will we roar for next? Only time will tell. For now, I and my fellow shuttle enthusiasts are left with a vapor trail to the heavens to contemplate. We're not sure what will come next, but I'm sure we'll think of something.

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