STS-135… Lift Off!

I'm pretty sure there was a Space Shuttle program over there...

At 11:29 EST Friday the Space Shuttle Atlantis left Earth for the last time.  I was there.  I still can’t fathom it.  It was a long morning, but an amazing experience that I am privileged to tell you about.

The window for launch was about 10 minutes; the chance of having a “go” for launch was 30%. When we left the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, we were told to keep an eye on our Twitter feed to see if weather allowed them to be fueling the tanks.  If the tanks were not being fueled, then we weren’t launching. I was staying in Orlando, so when my alarm went off at 2:57am (I have a weird OCD thing about waking up on 5’s or 0’s), I immediately checked my Twitter feed and saw that the tanks had been filled, then headed out on the 45 minute (without traffic) drive to Kennedy Space Center.

The VAB and the countdown clock at dawn

The morning was full of speakers and a crazy desire for coffee. The tent was still air-conditioned, which is necessary in Florida, even at 5 in the morning. The one nice thing about the humidity in Florida is that I found breathing the air to be an excellent alternative to drinking water.  I was never thirsty this whole time.

Perhaps one of the cooler parts of the morning’s itinerary was being able to walk up to the road and wave to the AstroVan (The Airstream Van that brings astronauts to the launch pad).  This sounds corny, but as I saw the security helicopter approach and then the Airstream coming down the road behind them, I couldn’t help but remember all the footage I used to watch of the Apollo astronauts waving as they entered the AstroVan.  The van stopped in front of the Vehicle Assembly Building to drop of the Flight Director.


That's a pretty cool ride to take to work

And if we had any questions, we could just turn and ask an astronaut! Tony Antonelli, Pilot for STS-119 (Discovery) and  STS-132 (Atlantis):

Oh, me? I was just the last guy that flew Atlantis on STS-132.

When we got back to the tent, we were greeted by another special guest: Robert Crippen, Pilot of STS-1, the very first flight of the Space Shuttle, that he flew along with Gemini and Apollo veteran John Young.  There were only 2 crew members on that one because there wasn’t room for anymore ejector seats.

Robert Crippen

If I had a Grampa, I'd pick him.

Robert explained to us his experiences on the shuttle, and why he eventually hung up his space boots and left the astronaut corps to become the director of the Kennedy Space Center. His reasoning was thoughtful, explaining that after Challenger broke up, he thought the director should be a former astronaut, someone acutely aware of the dangers of space flight.  That former astronaut wound up being him.

By that time we broke for some coffee and “breakfast”  at the NASA cafeteria.  When I asked why the food wasn’t “the best I’ve had,” Tracy Thumm of the International Space Station Science office in Houston (perhaps more importantly, she and her husband are loyal listeners of the Nerdist podcast), explained, “It may be NASA, but in the end it’s still a U.S. Government-run cafeteria.” It all made sense after that, as did every meal I’ve ever had at a public school.

After breakfast it was time to take our places for the launch.

My head is blocking the Shuttle.... It's huge. The shuttle is pretty big too.

With the launch go for 11:26, we got into position. I moved in front of the grandstands; I don’t know if they were the same grandstands that Lyndon Johnson watched Apollo 11 lift off from, but in my head it was.

At T-00:00:31, the countdown held. No one knew what was going on, just that the countdown held.   The launch window was until 11:34. We all waited anxiously…. not quite sure if Atlantis would make her launch window.  Then, after 3 minutes of waiting, I finally saw a plume of steam form from the water deluge system….

Holy crap! This is going!!

I was insanely excited when I saw this.  Choosing between the camera lens and the naked eye was the most difficult decision of the day.  I flipped the Canon to “sport” and started snapping.

The glow of the boosters on the steam from the water deluge system can be seen on the next picture:


Then it cleared the tower:

Just about clear of the tower...

That's how much power you need to defeat gravity.

The color of the engine flames is unbelievable.  I cant even describe the color.  The camera doesn’t capture it because it’s too bright.  The closest thing I can come up with is a welding torch with no mask on and about 50 times brighter…  By this time we still hadn’t heard the shuttle, and we didn’t hear it until about here:

This is when the sound caught up with us.

The sound was incredible.  It pounds you in the chest.  The concussion of the sound waves is exhilarating. As the sound passed over, it kind of dawned on me that this was the last time the shuttle would ever fly. It went up and up.  It entered the clouds:

Into the clouds

Into the Clouds

And just like that…. It was out of sight. It was right around that point when I began to well up with tears.  Then they began coming out: I cried.  I don’t know if it was the awesomeness of the moment, the thought that this was the culmination of my adolescent obsession with space and the space program, or, more troubling, if I was crying because part of me thought this was the end of American-financed manned space flight.

The International Space Station sits above the earth, and American astronauts will be on board. However, if we are going to get there, we have to hitch a ride on the Russian Soyuz.  Remember the Soyuz? It’s been around so long that it actually docked with an Apollo service module in 1975. Like most Russian things, they build things robust, and to last.

I was able to fight back the tears and go into the tent to watch the shuttle separate from the tank on NASA TV.

Tweet-up attendees clap as Atlantis reaches orbit.

And then that was it…  It happened.  The shuttle launched for the last time and I was there to see it.  I felt truly honored.  People on Twitter were telling me all week how lucky I was and that I was witnessing history.  People say that phrase sometimes: “witnessing history.”  This was the first time I ever really felt that it applied to me personally.

I can’t say thank you enough. Thank you to NASA for having the tweet-up; Thank you to Perry for proofreading and editing the site; Of course, thank you to Chris for telling me I was stupid for thinking about not going just so I could stay back and work at the Fruit Stand. And thank you, Nerdist readers, for sitting through 3,000 words about a space nut on vacation in Florida. It was all worth it, even the 5 hours in the car on the 45 minute drive back from KSC.

One last picture…. The shuttle plume continued above the clouds, and cast a shadow at a right angle to the left of the plume. I took this as the security helicopter that led the way for the astronauts to the pad flew by the plume:

The shadow on the clouds.


Follow Matt on Twitter: @mattmira

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  • Wow, that looks like such a blast(-off). I was watching the launch from thousands of miles away yesterday, all the way from Canada, and I almost felt like tearing up too. End of an era.

  • That is just too rad…great write up Matt- glad you had a good time and got to see something so awesome. Can’t wait to see what you’re going to be writing about next (and yes, just reading this made me tear up just a little bit).

  • Incredible Matt, absolutely incredible. I hope you write more, you’re a great writer. This was interesting, I sort of want to follow NASA and it’s going ons. Can’t wait for you to recant this on a Hostful episode. #MiraBooey

  • I was really hoping to go see this last take-off, but just couldn’t make it happen. I’m glad that I can live vicariously through you Matt. Nice write ups all week long, Mira-booey.

  • Oh, Matt, you are a big ol’ bucket of adorable. So glad you got to see this. I watched on television, from where I live in Tampa Bay, and I burst into noisy tears as the shuttle went up. Such an amazing thing to have been able to see it right there, I am sure. I really hope you will talk about it on a Hostful, because this is really a tale worth telling again and again. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Loved, loved, loved this post so much that I’m actually commenting on here for the first time. I’m not usually the commenting kind! :) So happy you got to be there and loved your story and images.

  • Thank you for choosing to take pictures – those are incredible.
    Glad you were able to experience this, and stay hydrated through osmosis all at once. How lucky are you?

  • Matt – that was some mighty fine bloggering you did there and I enjoyed reading it. I know it’s awesome to see and it’s an end of an era and all that, but what a lot of people are overlooking is the fact that in a few days all these people are going to out of work. In it’s heydy the shuttle program employeed over 30,000 people and over the last few years they have all been getting let go. A lot of them Big C’s age and older are still out of work 2, 3 even 6 years later. In roughly 50 years we have seen the beginning and the end of the space program.
    Anyway, I look forward to reading future bloggerings by you from the frontlines when Skynet eventually attacks…..#MiraBooey

  • Great write-up Matt! And great photos too. You are so lucky to have been there. I got emotional several times myself during the coverage.

    I was a total space nerd growing up as well. I had this awesome cut-away poster of the shuttle on my wall and I used to make shuttle-shaped paper gliders and drop them on my sisters’ heads. I even got to go to Space Camp when I was 15. First time away from home on my own, seeing so much cool stuff… it was the highlight of my young life. You should seriously look into the adult Space Camp.

  • I know exactly how you were feeling. While I grew up in Marblehead (as we reminisced at NerdMelt last week), I spent the first 11 years of my life in South Florida, 3 hours away from the KSC but still close enough to get a spectacular show every time a shuttle went up. It really is an unforgettable sight, and I’m glad you were able to experience the final one and share it with everyone. Here’s hoping that NASA, SpaceX, and other companies all over the country give us all something equally spectacular in the next few years.

  • You lucky, lucky guy.
    I can only imagine what it must have felt like to stand there watching the shuttle soundlessly leaving the planet. I know for a fact that I would have cried right there, no matter how many people would be there to see it…

    Lucky guy.
    I really enjoyed reading your posts about this experience and I hope you will start blogging a lot more in the future, keep us informed about space stuff and anything else you think would even just amuse one reader out there. Just one amused reader and you succeeded!

    Keep at it Mira!

  • Jessie – you weren’t the only one to “…burst into noisy tears as the shuttle went up…” I was right there with you. And so, apparently, was Matt. :)

    Matt, you did a great job with recording this event for the site – it was a joy to read. The pictures are wonderful.