STS-135 and the USA’s return to space

Big weekend for space exploration coming. I’m super excited about the Space X/NASA Crew Dragon launch, the USA’s first crewed spaceship to fly since the last Shuttle launch, STS-135 Atlantis, on July 8, 2011.

Somewhere round here, sooner or later, you’re going to see a spaceship

I was there for that, thanks to my buddy Geezer Dave’s staff travel concessions on American Airlines, flew to Orlando on July 7. There was an unbelievable storm overnight with raindrops the size of golfballs and howling winds, indeed Atlantis herself was struck by lightning. Nonetheless, we got up at 4a to drive out to the Space Coast (area code 321, genius). Even though mission control in Houston only gave a 30% chance of launch, they started fuelling the Shuttle at 6am and put the astronauts into their suits. Not until 8am, only two and a half hours before launch, the rain stopped although it was still very cloudy and hotter and more humid than hell itself. Me and Geezer Dave (who is not on FB alas) were on a fishing boat because the launchpad has a five mile exclusion zone and we thought being on a boat would guarantee an unobstructed view. Houston raised the chance of launch to 60%. “The weather is still very dynamic but we think we might have a shot at this.” I really felt the decades of experience going back to Apollo, Gemini and Mercury, to the start of the Space Age, influencing the decision-making process.

Miss Cape Canaveral, our ride out into the Atlantic to the edge of the five mile exclusion zone surrounding launchpad 39A

At 10am, T minus half an hour, go for launch. I almost felt guilty because I know people who have travelled thousands of miles for a launch and only experienced a mission scrub. In fact I know of one guy, father of a famous drummer actually, who made four such trips and never saw a launch.

We couldn’t receive the NASA radio feed so we didn’t know the countdown stopped at T minus 31 seconds because there was an indication a hose hadn’t disconnected; mission control checked using CCTV to confirm that it was just the indication that was faulty, and after two and a half minutes, the countdown started again. Aboard the Miss Cape Canaveral, we had no way of knowing, and when nothing happened at the appointed minute, I thought it was a last-minute mission scrub. I looked away for a second, then someone shouted, there she is!

Liftoff for STS-135

The haze on the horizon vividly lit up, and a spear of fire erupted. Even from five miles away it was enormous, by far the most fire I’ve ever seen, and white hot, not yellow as it looks in pictures. I was amazed by how fast it was racing upwards towards the clouds, only visible for about ten seconds. The cloud bank flared with light as Atlantis flew into it. A few seconds later I saw her through a gap in the clouds going like the clappers, much higher. And then she was gone, and, six minutes after liftoff, was in orbit.

Ad astra!

I am from a spacefaring family so to be there for a launch was a pivotal moment in my life. I’m not convinced of the pragmatic purpose of space exploration, especially with sustainability not achieved here on Earth, but for the abstract reasons – to help us understand our place in the universe, because it’s really cool – there is definitely a case for it. So I wish Space X and NASA a successful mission, putting the USA back in the crewed space travel business after a nine year absence. Go for launch!

The pillar of smoke and steam hung in the air for ages after the Atlantis herself was in orbit