Inside STS135: The Experience at the Final Shuttle Launch

I got to William J. Menzo Park in Titusville at about 3 am, in a bad mood and not sure if the shuttle would even launch. NASA said the odds for departure were only 30 percent. But until NASA officially scrubbed the Friday morning liftoff, I’d be here, set up in a tent with provisions packed in a Styrofoam cooler I’d just bought.

The shuttle’s been ferrying people to space for just a few more years than I’ve been alive–and today’s mission was my last chance to see the space ship of my generation.

It’s a logistical nightmare, seeing a launch. There’s no certainty the weather will cooperate, as I and a reported one million other spectators know all too well. Hotels in Titusville and along the Space Coast charge incredible prices, which isn’t exactly unfair–this is the hottest ticket in Florida!–but it does put rooms out of reach of many. And so we drive, in cars, in SUVs, in station wagons and RVs and camper vans with pop tops. Parked on sidewalks and lawns, along the sides of roads, there seems to be a suspension of rules.

It’s the same in the park, where according to a sign, there’s no overnight camping. (Broke that ordinance.) There’s also no alcohol without a permit. (Plenty of people not heeding that one.) The fires that were going last night must violate some rule, but I’m not sure which one. But there’s a singular focus here, and the only real crime would be to block someone’s tripod-mounted camera.

Lenses bristle along the coast, set up since the middle of the night to stake out an ideal vantage point. It’s an outlandish collection of gizmos–all manner of video recorders, lenses bigger than magnum wine bottles, boom mikes with wind screens–that reminds me that half the fun of space exploration is taking photos of what happens when we explore space.

With 56 minutes left until launch, a duo strums a guitar and plays a drum, while spectators smoke cigarettes out of habit or nervousness or need to do something, anything to pass the slowly ticking minutes. Kids are slathered with sunscreen and bug spray by parents who no doubt brought them so the youngsters could one day say they’d seen a shuttle launch. I wonder if they’ll even remember the experience, like many of my generation can only hazily remember the Challenger disaster, the defining public tragedy of our lives, at least through September 10, 2001.

With five minutes left to go, someone in the crowd shouts out “FIVE MINUTES.” We’re all excited, the atmosphere tense with the hope that we’ll see the launch but wary of a last-second call-off.

Two minutes. A duo of military fighter jets fly over, making a deafening racket, drowning out the sound of radios broadcasting the mission control chatter. Final camera checks are made.

We all hear the words “main engine start” at seven seconds and a tiny spark, 10 miles away but very distinct, appears. Breath is drawn. I don’t remember hearing the rest of the countdown.

A giant cloud of steam and exhaust explodes, silently because the sound hasn’t yet reached us, and Atlantis surges off the pad. We start clapping and cheering, with tunnel vision chasing the craft up into the low-hanging clouds that threatened the launch minutes before. After another minute–or what feels like a minute–the exhaust stream pokes out from a gap in the clouds, and we can see the shuttle again, already hundreds of miles away, tiny and flickering on its way to space. Applause goes up again, as those of us who see it point it out to those who don’t.

And then it’s gone.

Later, as the basso profundo of the rockets finally rolled across the water, I talked to Tim, a local construction worker who’s seen more than 100 launches, including the very first and today’s, the very last. It was a celebratory day, with our four astronauts on the way to orbit, and a sad day. It’s the end of the program, a retirement that Tim says will be “devastating” to the region. There were little kids running around, here for the last shuttle launch, but probably too young to ever fully remember it.