Friday, November 6, 2015

Space Shuttles: Launching my Love of Human Spaceflight

I was a relative late-comer to space shuttle launches. I grew up in Pennsylvania, so I didn't see my first launch until I moved to Florida for college. I attended Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne for undergraduate, nearly an hour south of Kennedy Space Center, but still offering clear views of launches.

My first was STS-112. I drove up to KSC with two friends, only to be turned away of course because we weren't badged. We tried a nearby viewing site, but it was full. We ended up on the side of the road by the water, staring up in awe as a car radio blasted the countdown. I remember thinking that someday I wanted to see a launch from inside the space shuttle.

STS-112, October 7, 2002

My second was a month later, STS-113. I was thrilled to be allowed to cover that launch for the university student newspaper from the KSC press site! It was a night launch, my favorite, and the night seemed perfect. Unfortunately, the first attempt was scrubbed, so we returned the next evening. Unlike this year's record breaking hot November, it was cold, see our breath cold. I was surprised at how bright the launch was and how much the world shook. The bright ball of light faded away into a star-like point. I thought that it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen.

STS-113, November 23, 2002

Space Shuttle Columbia's last flight, STS-107, was the day before my birthday. Unfortunately, a new school semester kept me preoccupied. I figured that since I had seen my first two launches up close, I could watch this one from campus farther away. I was in my car when it launches and I didn't take any photos, though I did take a picture of the Columbia flag at a Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex birthday visit.

STS-107 Columbia Flag, January 2003

I was still sleeping in my dorm room on the morning of Saturday, February 1, 2003 when I was awoken to the sad news. Our entire university body took the incident hard. We held a vigil for the astronauts that evening. Later that year, as a sophomore, the brand new dorm complex where I lived was named Columbia Village in dedication. As a Student Ambassador and the Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper, I was a student representative at the dedication ceremony, sitting at a lunch table with Laurel Clark’s sister-in-law and son. It was a very emotional experience.

Columbia Village dedication, Florida Institute of Technology, October 28, 2003 

There was a large gap in shuttle launches until the STS-114 Return to Flight mission. I was fortunate to be attending a NASA internship in Huntsville that summer and I arranged for our internship program to take a trip to Florida in part to see that launch. Thanks to the generosity of astronaut Winston Scott (now of Florida Institute of Technology) who ran the Florida Space Authority, the precursor organization to Space Florida, our student group received bleacher tickets at the Kennedy Space Center Saturn V Center right next to the VIP section. I remember lots of secret service agents in the area watching over First Lady Laura Bush who was accompanying Florida Governor Jeb Bush. The view from Banana Creek was one of my favorite launch viewing locations for its beauty.

STS-114 Discovery on launch pad , July 2005

STS-114, July 26, 2005

Circumstances prevented more launches until a second Return to Flight mission, STS-121, a year later on Independence Day. I had graduated from undergraduate and moved to Huntsville, and that year I was helping to run the NASA internship program. I arranged for another trip to Florida for the student group. A friend of mine who worked on base advised us to park near the Vehicle Assembly Building and climb 100 feet up to watch the launch on top of a mobile launch platform. Because of our height, it was the closest and clearest launch I had ever seen.

STS-121, July 4, 2006

Unfortunately, my move to Huntsville for my master's degree led me to miss seeing in person many launches to come. It wasn't until I moved back to Florida for my doctoral education that I was able to witness the beauty in person once again. STS-130 was my next, another night launch. I watched this one with new friends at Space View Park in Titusville. Unfortunately, I had forgotten my camera in the car and I didn't have a smartphone back then.

STS-131 was an early morning launch, and again, I forgot my camera. I remember it being beautiful in the dark pre-daen sky.

I saw STS-132 again with friends at Space View Park, this time with camera!

STS-132, May 14, 2010

STS-133 was a long time coming. I watched with a classmate at the now-relocated Astronaut Hall of Fame right outside of Kennedy Space Center. We had fun checking out the exhibits while we waited. Astronaut Bob Springer was the guest speaker. It was a beautiful day for a launch.

Unfortunately, the third-to-last space shuttle launch was the last that I saw. I was flying off to Huntsville for a conference when the delayed STS-134 soared. The last launch, STS-135, was pushed back such that I was still in Pennsylvania for family gatherings and a family reunion over the Independence Day holiday when it launched.

By that point, the space shuttle program had become part of who I was. Although I never worked the program, I feel just as connected to the shuttles as those who did. I cried the first three times I witnessed the KSC Visitor Complex's Atlantis Exhibit. I understand and agree with the decision to end the program to move forward, but I still fondly remember the past glories.

Kennedy Space Center's Atlantis Exhibit, June 22, 2013

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