National Geographic

Don’t Cry for Me, Discovery

Space Shuttle Discovery lifted off from Kennedy Space Center today at 4:53pm ET in spectacular fashion on her 39th and final mission. However, it wouldn’t be a Discovery launch if it wasn’t a nail biter. I’ve been to over 45 launch attempts since 2005 and this was the closest yet, with the countdown going right to the wire to resolve a range safety computer problem. Cleared with only seconds left before possibly requiring a scrub, the signal was finally given to continue the countdown.

I spent most of the drive to the airport thinking about the person whose job it was to fix that computer issue—the ultimate IT help desk situation (or deodorant commercial) with the entire world and six astronauts waiting for you to reboot whatever system needed rebooting with only moments to spare. Whoever it was, I hope their range safety buddies took them out to celebrate later.

It hasn’t quite hit me yet that I just witnessed Discovery’s last flight and the next time I see her will be in a museum quietly living out the rest of her days as a token of inspiration for future generations. When I came to Kennedy Space Center for my first launch in 2005, I had been waiting my entire life to see a space shuttle lift off. I was, to say the least, a tad emotional. After the faint contrails of the exhaust plume of STS-114 disappeared, I finally lowered my head, hands over my mouth, tears streaming down my face. It was at that moment I noticed the four or five local camera crews trained on me, capturing the classic “oh my god” look they wait for in first time launch observers. I must have been on a dozen nightly news runs in the local Orlando area. What can I say…I’m a professional.

In the launches since then, it’s been more about the logistics of each experience so that photographing 16 launches doesn’t become routine. When you’re at the press site, there’s a frenzy of jockeying for the best camera positions and a ton of lenses that look like the Hubble telescope. Everyone is looking for the unique shot, the one they haven’t seen in the previous hundred launches. It’s hard not to get caught up in it.

But today, as soon as the countdown resumed, I shot only a few frames right at ignition then set the camera down and let the launch shock wave pass through me. I watched it soar into the air, through only the lens of excitement and felt the tears flowing once again. Thankfully, this time the camera crews were looking in another direction.

As they say in the space business, God speed Discovery, and enjoy every second of your final mission.

shuttle-launch-133.jpg—Image Credit: Susan Poulton


—Susan Poulton works for National Geographic Digital Media and is a self-proclaimed space geek. Since graduating from Space Camp in 1987, she’s been fascinated by all things space and can’t resist sharing this passion with others. A veteran of 15 launches (and over 46 launch attempts), she has attempted to see every space shuttle launch since STS-114 in 2005.


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