I’ve been a space shuttle “junkie” for the past six years and have racked up some pretty impressive statistics. There have been 22 launches since my first in the summer of 2005, and I have seen 19 of them. I’ve attended 58 launch attempts and seen 17 crews walk out to the astrovan. What do all of those numbers equal? Dedication. Well, sometimes it felt like insanity, but when things went right, the results were stunning. Many first-time launch viewers who attended with me would say, “I want to do that again!” See? I’m not nuts.
But as the shuttle program draws to a close, I’m left to reflect on all the amazing moments I’ve been lucky enough to witness and the amazing people I’ve met along the way. In review, here are my top six moments from six years of shuttle launch experiences.
Enjoy. I certainly did.
1. First Launch
Nothing beats your very first launch. Mine was STS-114 the Return to Flight launch in July, 2005. Discovery was my first shuttle, and I always held a special place in my heart for her after that. I had been waiting to experience a shuttle launch my entire life, and it did not disappoint. I was taken by surprise at how the shockwave moved through your body, shaking you from the inside and rattling every building and object. Then you realize there are seven crew members riding that shockwave and the experience becomes very emotional. Of course, I cried and without realizing it, my hands went over my mouth, tears streaming down my face. When I looked down moments after launch, I had four local news cameras trained on me and I had the pleasure of being the Orlando 11 o’clock news “oh my god” shot on almost every station.
2. Night Launch
Ok, if anything is going to beat your first launch, it’s your first night launch (I’ve been lucky enough to see four). And if anything is going to beat THAT, it’s seeing a night launch from the roof of the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building), the largest single story building in the world. When Endeavour launched on mission STS-130 in February of 2010, the sky literally turned from night to day, and the shockwave shook the entire building beneath my feet. It felt like I was watching the launch from an other-worldly vantage point. The air was so crisp and cold, a rarity for Florida, that you could see the shuttle all the way into space, until the main engine cut off eight minutes later, becoming a small glowing dot that wavered in brightness and then faded to a deep red and disappeared over the horizon.
3. Crew Moments
Very few shuttle events can beat the emotion of launch, but the one that comes close is crew walkout. About four hours before launch, photographers are taken to the Operations & Checkout Building to see the crew off as they board the astrovan and head to the launch pad. NASA has its many traditions, and this is no exception. Crews have been walking out of this exact door since the Apollo days in the mid-1960s. My favorite part of this experience is that many of the trainers and staff who worked with the astronauts are in the crowd, and the crew will catch a glimpse of someone they recognize and a smile, a wave, or a shout rings out. The look on their faces is pure joy, especially the first time flyers. I’ve come to love photographing those expressions, each saying “I’m about to go into space!” The only contrast was the look that crossed Commander Chris Ferguson’s face as he walked out of the doorway for the final shuttle launch, STS-135. A little sad, a little contemplative, it was fleeting and soon gave way to the usual smiles and waves.
Once at crew walk out, I looked down and saw one of the ‘perks’ of being on the astronaut crew: designated parking.
4. Shuttle Up Close
The night before a launch, photographers are given the opportunity to go over to the launch pad to photograph the shuttle during RSS Rollback (RSS stands for Rotating Service Structure). The shuttle is unveiled from behind the sarcophagus-like metal gantry that protects it for weeks on the launch pad. This offers a rare and up close look at the shuttle on the launch pad, and it’s a beautiful sight, worth every mosquito bite you endure from standing in the swampy land, waiting. One special moment involved our van getting stuck in the new causeway gravel, requiring us to drive up and over the launch pad, directly under the shuttle Discovery awaiting launch for, STS-131. I furiously snapped photos closer than I’d ever been and then said farewell to the shuttle that started it all for me.
5. Clouds and Shadows
Very few people know that the best light show at a space shuttle launch actually occurs anywhere from 10 minutes to 2 hours after the shuttle has lifted off. Depending on the time of day, the shadows that form through the exhaust plume can be mesmerizing, and more than once, artificial noctilucent clouds (high-altitude “glowing” clouds) formed over the launch site.
6. Last Launch
The last launch, for STS-135, was a daze. Tense to the last minute with horrible weather, a hold at 31 seconds, it still doesn’t feel like it really happened and it’s really over. I had photographed the shuttle so many times, I just couldn’t think about how to make this last one special until I saw an artist next to the flagpole getting ready to paint through the launch. He provided me with a wonderful backdrop to frame the final lift off, and also provided a comforting hug when the emotion of the moment overtook me and I realized I had felt the final shuttle launch shockwave move through me. Farewell, Atlantis.
For more amazing space shuttle photos, visit National Geographic News: Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Images gallery.