30 percent – It’s now my favorite number!

DNU Paul

I can’t believe it happened!

As you all know, last Friday morning the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, defying the odds placed by every expert, and spitting in the face of NASA’s 30% likelihood that she would even get off the ground that day.

As one who witnessed the events first-hand, there’s no way you could have written a better script for this historic launch – the swan song of the Space Shuttle program.

I arrived in Orlando on Wednesday, July 6, knowing that the areas in and around Kennedy Space Center had been plagued all week by clouds, rain and thunderstorms – all of which spell death for any Space Shuttle launch.

What fascinated me more than anything else was the attitude of every Floridian I talked to. You could just sense the doubt in their voices and I couldn’t blame them either. For 30 years, they’ve witnessed Shuttle launches, and experienced the constant delays that became part of the Shuttle’s M.O.

Sure, I heard the token responses of hope like, “well, you never know”, or “hey, I’ve seen it go up when there’s only been a 10% chance.” Deep down, though, everyone including me knew it wouldn’t happen on Friday.

The next day, Thursday, was the first time all 150 NASA Tweetup tweeps met together. It was a day full of incredible speakers and VIP tours, but we still weren’t hearing what we wanted to hear.

With every NASA astronaut, engineer or administrator that talked to us, the general attitude was the same – we’re glad you’re here, what you’re doing is fantastic, but good luck seeing a Shuttle launch tomorrow.

Then, the storm came.

Storm

I’ve seen some pretty incredible storms before, but the one we experienced on Thursday ranks near the top. Thunderous rain forced speakers to basically yell into the microphone, leaks popped up at various spots throughout the Tweetup tent, lightning strikes forced NASA to prohibit anyone near the press area from walking outside and NASA TV had to shut down the broadcast from our tent because of safety concerns.

At that time, if anyone would have said, “Don’t worry, in less than 24 hours Atlantis will launch,” I would have bet my life savings against it. Good thing I didn’t.

Upon leaving Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, it was clear that, at best, we were looking at a Sunday launch. In fact, the NASA communications team repeatedly suggested that we look at our email for updates prior to making the trek to the Space Center on Friday. No email ever came.  Game on!

At 3 a.m. Eastern on Friday, my carpool buddy, Jess and I met to take the drive out to Kennedy Space Center. There, we would hook up with the rest of the NASA Tweetup participants. It was completely dark outside, and off in the distance sat Atlantis on the launch pad, basking in the light of massive spotlights.  By that point, NASA had already decided to move ahead with all launch preparations, a significant milestone, and the first of several unlikely milestones that would be achieved that morning.

Shuttle basking in light

The milestone that hit me the most was when the astronauts were shuttled down to the launch pad approximately three hours before launch. I thought to myself, “There’s no way NASA would go to this extreme if they weren’t serious about launching.” It was at that moment that I realized this thing might actually happen.

astronauts being shuttled

It’s hard to describe the feeling in the press area that day. In just a matter of hours, everyone’s attitude literally changed from frustration and let-down, to extreme excitement and anticipation. That’s a significant swing in such a short time, but it’s one that was incredible to witness.

Around 11:15 a.m. Eastern, the sun was shining and area surrounding the historic countdown clock was filled with thousands of spectators including reporters, anchors, producers, photographers, dignitaries, tweeters, and NASA employees. Most people were laughing and smiling…others were clearly nervous, pacing back and forth…a small minority were already getting emotional. Honestly, it was surreal.

spectators

As the final minute started counting down, I reflected on my fortunate situation. How lucky I was to even be a part of this experience – to be a part of history.

Then, at T-minus 31 seconds, it all came to a screeching halt.

Nobody around me knew exactly what was going on. We just knew there was a delay and NASA had a tiny window in which to fix it. My group didn’t have a direct view of the countdown clock, so, in all of the confusion, we didn’t realize it started back up. All we heard was the familiar phrase, “Go for main engine start.”

That’s all we needed to hear. A cheer went up from the crowd. It was time!

Instantly, everyone’s heads shifted to the launch pad, and before you knew it, we could see the signature puffs of smoke as the solid rocket boosters ignited.

Liftoff in silence

We all watched Atlantis silently lift off the pad in a way that I can only describe as peaceful, graceful and elegant. You see, the sound hadn’t reached us yet. When it did, it was unbelievable. The shockwaves and the thundering sound were incredible…I didn’t want it to end.

Then, we all watched in awe as Atlantis disappeared into the clouds and that was it. She was gone.

into the clouds

Looking back, the decision to participate in the NASA Tweetup was a no-brainer. It’s an experience I’ll never forget, and I’m thrilled that I got to witness history. Unfortunately, I also share in the disappointment of many NASA employees and space fanatics when I say I wish there was something to replace the Space Shuttle program.

I’ll always have my memories and descriptions of this launch, but when you really think about it, those memories and descriptions can only go so far. I hope that one day my kids and everyone else for that matter, will have the chance to see a grander, more spectacular and louder launch than I got to see in July, 2011.

Many thanks to NASA for the opportunity to witness this incredible event, and many thanks to Clark Planetarium for letting me write about it. It’s been the ride of a lifetime for me and hopefully you got some enjoyment out of it as well.

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