National Geographic

Final Chapter: Diary of a Shuttle Launch Enthusiast

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.

The space shuttle Discovery lifts off on the STS-114 Return to Flight mission on July 26, 2005. Photo Credit: Susan Poulton


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.

A spectacular night launch of the space shuttle Endeavour on February 8, 2010 as seen from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). Photo Credit: Susan Poulton
Endeavour lifts off on March 11, 2008 on a clear and still night. This was my first night launch, and remains my best night launch photo I've ever taken. Photo Credit: Susan Poulton

A nearly full moon rises behind the space shuttle Endeavour on the launch pad moments before lift off on November 14, 2008. Photo Credit: Susan Poulton

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.

Canadian Space Agency astronaut Dave Williams throws a wave to a familiar face as the crew of STS-118 boards the astrovan for the trip to the launch pad on August 8, 2007. Photo Credit: Susan Poulton
Astronaut Mike Massimino recognizes a face in the crowd as he departs the Operations & Checkout Building for the launch pad on May 11, 2009. The crew was bound for the Hubble Space Telescope on space shuttle Atlantis. Photo Credit: Susan Poulton
Commander Chris Ferguson has a reflective expression as he leads the final space shuttle crew out of the Operations & Checkout Building to depart for the launch of STS- 135, the final space shuttle mission. Photo Credit: Susan Poulton


Once at crew walk out, I looked down and saw one of the ‘perks’ of being on the astronaut crew: designated parking.

Reserved parking...for the astronauts. Photo Credit: Susan Poulton


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.

Discovery stands on the launch pad the day before launch of STS-131 on April 5, 2010. Photo Credit: Susan Poulton
A rare treat to get so close. Discovery stands magestically on the launch pad. Photo Credit: Susan Poulton
Discovery awaits launch on the pad. Photo Credit: Susan Poulton
Space Shuttle Discovery at sunrise hours after she rolls out to the launch pad for the final time. Photo Credit: Susan Poulton
A quiet sunset the evening before launch of Atlantis on May 11, 2009. Photo Credit: Susan Poulton


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.

An artificially created noctilucent cloud forms over the Kennedy Space Center after the June 8, 2007 launch of Atlantis. The glowing streams are created when sunlight shines through the water vapor exhaust of the space shuttle at a high altitude. Photo Credit: Susan Poulton
A brilliant noctilucent cloud forms over the launch pad after the launch of Discovery on STS-131 in early 2010. Photo Credit: Susan Poulton
Shadows appear after the late afternoon launch of Atlantis on June 8, 2007. Photo Credit: Susan Poulton
The space shuttle Endeavour disappears into the clouds after launch, lighting the night sky from above. Photo Credit: Susan Poulton


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.

A painter speed paints the launch of Atlantis on STS 135, the 135th and final space shuttle mission. Photo Credit: Susan Poulton


For more amazing space shuttle photos, visit National Geographic News: Most Unforgettable Space Shuttle Images gallery.


  1. Goodbye, Atlantis. | Barkingwood
    February 21, 2012, 12:16 am

    [...] what the Space Shuttle means to me. On Thursday, July 21 2011,  US Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down for the final time, returning from the last mission that the shuttle program will fly for the United States.  The [...]

  2. robert
    July 29, 2011, 9:38 am

    baltimore rocks and so does space

  3. robert emmmons
    baltimore maryland
    July 29, 2011, 9:36 am

    i love space

  4. Tommy
    July 27, 2011, 9:09 am

    I liked the about the photo about the frist and last launch of the space ship.Farewell discovery,Altlantis

  5. Tommy
    July 27, 2011, 9:05 am

    I liked the photo about the frist and the last launch about it.Farewell discovery,Atlantis

  6. Tommy
    July 27, 2011, 9:03 am

    I liked when I saw this photo and I thought when I grew up I would like to be a astourant in the future.Farewall,Discovery,Altlantis

  7. Tommy
    July 27, 2011, 8:58 am

    iliked it

  8. David Braun
    July 23, 2011, 2:03 pm

    Bravo, Susan. I am going to miss all your excitement and your enthusiastic accounts of the Shuttle launches — to say nothing of the special stamp covers you sent me from the launch pad. Too bad I never got it together to go down myself, but I enjoyed it all vicariously through you!

  9. Gary Frisch
    Laurel Springs, NJ
    July 22, 2011, 1:14 pm

    Thank you for the wonderful essay and amazing photos. I spent most of my life wanting to see a launch, made two failed attempts in the past 10 years, then finally saw the penultimate launch of Atlantis in May, 2010. I flew from NJ to Orlando for a 24 hour trip just to see the launch. What an experience. I too was featured in on camera interviews by two Orlando TV stations, and a Philadelphia columnist wrote about my trip when I returned. Your thoughts really resonated with me.