Many hours and miles chasing thundering, fireball- spewing space shuttles finally come to an end.
All my life I’ve had a fascination of sorts with NASA. Some 20 years ago I decided that I wanted to see a space shuttle launch in person, preferably as a member of the press. Reporters get to stand next to the huge countdown clock in a big field next to a large lagoon inside the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) complex when viewing launches from a surprisingly intimate three-mile distance. They also get to feel the ground shake at blast-off. It’s the reason I decided to become a writer: so I could attend launches at KSC. Needless to say, it was a thrill and privilege to be among a media throng estimated at 1,500 inside America’s spaceport on July 8 to witness the final space shuttle launch ever. Outside the facility, at least a million spectators lined the beaches and highways along what has been dubbed Florida’s “Space Coast.”
My interest in outer space began in 1961 when teachers wheeled televisions into classrooms at Edgewood Elementary in Selma so we could watch Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and a guy with the strange name “Gus Grissom” ride rockets into space. As a first grader, I concluded that there must be something special about astronauts and rockets since they had the power to make teachers bring TV sets to school. My favorite part of launch day was the countdown—a dramatic buildup that my classmates and I loudly recited in unison with the television broadcaster.
I grew a little bored with NASA when TV sets no longer showed up at school. But on Christmas Eve, 1968, I stared in awe at a black and white television in our family den as we listened to the Apollo 8 astronauts—the first people to fly around the Moon—read from the book of Genesis while in lunar orbit 240,000 miles away: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth . . .” Less than a year later, I was even more mesmerized when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon on live television. My interest in NASA gradually diminished until one morning in 1986 when space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch. A routine ride into space was suddenly no longer routine. The seven astronauts killed that day were the first NASA crew to die in flight.
My First Trip
Twenty years after first coveting a front-row seat at a shuttle launch, my wish finally came true when I obtained a media badge for the July 2005 launch of Discovery, the first shuttle to fly since Columbia had blown apart over Texas on its return home in February 2003. NASA officially anointed the STS-114 [Space Transportation System] mission of Discovery as “Return to Flight.” I was extremely excited driving all night to KSC. Arriving at the press center, I was astounded by the wonderland before me: Television monitors showed NASA TV telecasts; miniature models of the shuttle and space station were on display, as were spacecraft designs of the future; pleasant NASA public relations employees usually smiled when explaining the mission or shuttle equipment to inquiring reporters; stacks of information detailing everything from space shuttle history to explanations of safety criteria that must be met before clearing a shuttle for launch were readily available.
That evening, several buses took the media contingent to the launch pad for photo opportunities but we were forced to stay on the buses for two hours as launch pad personnel addressed a structure that had fallen off the shuttle and damaged one of the heat shield tiles that protects the spacecraft as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere. Once that was resolved, we had to wait another hour after several busloads of astronaut families and assorted VIPs pulled up next to the press buses so that they could take pictures first.. Our NASA media escort warned, in no uncertain terms, that anyone who pointed a camera in the direction of the newly-arrived visitors would have their media badge taken away, then be tossed out of the KSC compound and banned forever. At midnight, we were finally freed from the buses to take pictures and gawk, a mere 100 yards from space shuttle Discovery, majestically illuminated by spotlights. After half an hour, our NASA escort ordered us to return to the buses, warning that lingering reporters who missed the ride back would not only have their media badges revoked, they would also be shot on sight. We all wondered if he was kidding.
Back at the KSC Media Center at sunrise, I walked outside to stare at Discovery bathed in spotlights on the launch pad three miles away as an orange glow creeped onto the horizon. Suddenly, a sexy female voice oozed from the outdoor audio system as NASA TV began its broadcast day: “At 4:45 this morning, space shuttle crew and managers met and gave a ‘go’ to proceed with the tanking operations for the launch attempt this afternoon for the STS-114 Return to Flight mission,” she purred with authority. She sounded like the woman announcing flight schedules on the circular space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Two hours before launch that afternoon, a faulty fuel sensor delayed the Discovery mission for a couple of weeks. I dejectedly drove straight back to Birmingham, though there was one bright spot: That morning I spent 10 minutes interviewing Apollo 13 flight director Gene Kranz face to face in a tiny room. His crew cut and enthusiasm were charming as hell. By the time I arrived in Birmingham, I had been awake for 46 hours.
Blast Off at Last
On July 4th, 2006, I saw my first shuttle launch. Once again, it was spaceship Discovery on the launch pad. The STS-121 crew included robotic arm specialist Lisa Nowak. Less than a year following this mission, Nowak would be arrested in Orlando after reportedly driving all night and day from Houston to Florida while wearing a diaper to avoid bathroom stops in an alleged attempt to kidnap the fiancée of an astronaut with whom Nowak was having an affair. The diaper tale was eventually determined to be a myth. She was fired by NASA a month later. The pilot of STS-121 was Mark Kelly, husband of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot three months before her husband’s May 2011 mission as commander of Endeavor’s farewell flight.
On that Independence Day five years ago, a half-dozen veteran reporters sat around the NASA press-briefing room killing time, swapping “Buzz Aldrin was an asshole” stories about personal encounters with the grumpiest man to ever walk on the Moon. Several minutes later, the large monitors that telecast NASA TV showed the Discovery crew walking out to the vehicle that would take them to the launch pad for that afternoon’s blast-off. It was quite nerve-racking watching the countdown clock tick away. Discovery did not disappoint. The launch was the most memorable spectacle I’ve ever seen. Just like on television, it appeared to be moving in slow motion the first several seconds after launch. The oddest thing was that I was watching a silent rocket blast off without a roar. Within 12 seconds, however, the noise slowly swept over me, growing louder as the ground began to tremble.
In April 2011—the day after the most devastating rash of tornadoes in American history passed through Alabama—I set off for Kennedy Space Center once again to watch the final launch of space shuttle Endeavor. I left Birmingham at sunset the day before launch, arriving at sunrise to secure my media badge for the afternoon lift-off. By noon, NASA had scrubbed the launch due to technical problems. Weather cancellations can be turned around the next day, but technical issues can take weeks. I immediately left KSC and, after negotiating the hellacious traffic that packs highways on launch days, drove straight back home to save money on a motel room. I arrived in Birmingham 32 hours after I had left.
This Will Be the Last Time
Black & White publisher Chuck Geiss and I secured media credentials for STS-135, the final flight of space shuttle Atlantis, the last mission before retirement of the three-vehicle fleet permanently. I warned Chuck that due to technical and weather issues, a trip for a launch is about as reliable as throwing dice in a casino.
An hour before lift-off, NASA announced that weather conditions were favorable for launch, though there were concerns about rain showers at the flight runway that shuttles use to return in the event of an emergency. European Space Agency astronaut Hans Schlegel, a 60-year-old NASA veteran who had performed a spacewalk during a 1993 Columbia mission, and who was also on an Atlantis flight in 2008, chatted with me briefly. “I remember it was 80 percent ‘no go’ for Columbia,” Schlegel said in a thick German accent, recalling his first launch that flew without delay. When asked what will become of the astronaut corps with the retirement of the shuttle fleet, as the United States will be forced to pay the Russians $60 million per astronaut to go to the space station, he replied, “The change in astronaut corps is already going on. A lot of pilots have already left, a lot of other pilots decided they wanted to be long-duration crew members. The skill of pilots is still needed and will be even more needed when we develop new systems. It’s a milestone but it’s continuously developing and I hope we have many, many opportunities which we don’t think of yet.” As for his personal future, Schlegel said, “Next for me is I’m shortly before pension. I am passing on my experience, my knowledge, for use to make new European astronauts coming to Johnson Spaceflight Center in Houston preparing for their missions. I help them, I advise them, and mentor them. I’m kind of the senior league for them.”
After waiting in line at the merchandise trailer to purchase souvenirs, Chuck and I roamed the field where media congregate to watch the launch. Across the lagoon, Atlantis stood in the distance as clouds continued to shuffle. My anxiety turned to excitement as the crowd began counting down loudly in unison at 10 seconds. Suddenly, vapor clouds quickly blasted up to surround the bottom of the launch pad as Atlantis rose from the ground in slow motion, the blinding flame of the two SRBs [solid rocket boosters] forcing me to put my sunglasses back on. As the spacecraft began to pick up speed, a plume of smoke and vapor was left in the shuttle’s wake, appearing to connect Atlantis to Earth. Then the rumble I had been waiting for five years to hear again began. Creeping up slowly from the distance, invading ears with loud crackles and shaking the ground, the noise rattled my bones. There’s no feeling quite like it. Forty two seconds after blast off, Atlantis disappeared into the overhead clouds.
The press crammed into the small auditorium at the KSC media center for a post-launch press conference 90 minutes after launch. The briefing began with a video message (more or less a pep talk) from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. I was amazed that the top dog at NASA did not attend the post-launch press gathering, considering that this was the final shuttle launch. But four NASA officials were there, where they revealed that after discussing weather concerns, NASA’s mission management team waived some of the criteria for launch, something it had avoided doing in the wake of the Columbia tragedy to the point of being perhaps overly cautious.
“It got a little dicey there a couple of times but we found our way through it,” said Bob Cabana, Kennedy Space Center Director. With regards to the loss of jobs as the shuttle program ends, Cabana commented, “Change is difficult, but you can’t do something else—you can’t do something better—unless you go through change. And all this talk about ‘NASA is adrift, we don’t have a plan’—we do have a plan. We’re enabling commercial space. We have the commercial crew program here at Kennedy supported by the Johnson Space Center in Houston. We have four folks under contract trying to build a vehicle that will take Americans to space supporting our International Space Station— that’s still up there until at least 2020 with Americans onboard—a human spaceflight program.”
“I choke up at every launch. This one, I choked up before launch,” confessed Mike Moses, who oversees the Mission Management Team. “As an engineer, as whatever, I can’t see how anybody who comes down here and sees a shuttle launch doesn’t choke up and just swell with pride at seeing that thing go. It does it to you every time.” He’s right; when that countdown commences, no one is immune. &