WDMS Chapter 162

FINAL FLIGHT OV-104

ATLANTIS' FINAL FLIGHT

 

Bucket list. 

In 1981 my father pulled me and a buddy of mine out of school for the day. We made the trip from north Austin down to Bergstrom AFB (where my father had retired from) and we waited along with a huge crowd of folks. Soon enough, out of the gray clouds a 747 showed up with a bright gleaming OV (orbiting vehicle) on it's back. It landed with the Columbia (OV-102) fresh looking with all the black parts really SHINEYblack and the white parts totally gloss white. Evidently the 747, while carrying the enormous weight and drag that is an orbiter, cannot make the hop from California to Florida directly so they stop midway for fuel. At that point, the first shuttle launches were mainstream covered on TV and it was all amazing. I knew well before I saw this machine in person that I absolutely had to see one light off and rocket towards the heavens. 

Sadly, as with dreams many of us have, life got in the way. 

Fast forward nearly 30 years and the shuttle program is winding down. The orbiters have been cycled enough times that they are simply being worn out. They have been to maximum dynamic pressure on each launch, gone from the freezing cold of space to the 3000 degrees of re-entry again and again and again. Like a commercial airliner, they are only designed to be safe for so many cycles and the numbers are coming up. In April of 2010 there are only three launches left. One for each of the three orbiters left...that is the Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour. Atlantis is scheduled for May, then September for Discovery and then November for Endeavour. I've got to make this happen. Now. My bucket list in not huge or anything, but this is ONE item that has sat there for entirely too long. 

A few phone calls and a trio of us are locked in. Hotel booked, car reserved, we're good to go. Until the day before. My Oshkosh buddy Rob had an evil case of the 'work' attack him like a fat kid with two forks attacks a chocolate cake. It rapidly deteriorated from being late the day before, to arriving the day of, to a complete waive-off. ARGH. I arrived mid-Thursday, the day before the launch. Neil hopped in from California and arrived late Thursday night. The launch was scheduled for Friday about 1420 local and we both didn't leave until Sunday morning. In case of a delay, we had some time to hopefully still see the main event. 

So we hop up Friday morning in East Orlando and scoot towards the coast. Not a ton of traffic and we get into Titusville cleanly. One of the race boards I'm on has a great shuttle launch thread and we got some great advice as to where to show up for good viewing spots. We have about 4 hours to kill so we mill about and wander up and down after finding an awesome (exit friendly) parking spot. We chat with some folks, grab some ice cream at the most packed McDonald's I have ever seen in my LIFE, and generally catch up on life. Neil has just written an incredible book and we talked all about it and his boys and our jobs and such. Pretty soon we are within an hour and the energy on the beach goes from a typical crowd preoccupied with cell phones, each other, and updates from the outside world to 5 minutes before kickoff of the championship game. There is simply nothing to see but we all stare at the building in the distance. The hairs on my arms are alive. 

In our wandering we saw a truck backed into a space on the closest row to the water (about 20' from the water). It had Texas plates. Bingo. In the back window was a TAMU sticker. This was a lock. Stopped by and intro'd ourselves to them, noted the TAMU connections we all enjoyed and we had scored a nice viewing spot above the crowd. "Sure you can setup your tripod here, just send me copies of the pics!". Wonderful. So we waited the last half hour with our new friends talking about Texas, College Station, politics, fishing, racing and the Shuttle. The two of them had done the Kennedy Space Center tour the day before and were spitting out Shuttle facts left and right. Assuming the launch went fine, Neil and I were going to hit KSC first thing in the morning and do the tour also. Neil had done it years ago, but is "sufficiently geek enough" to do it a lot (his words!). 

And with that, I made a phone call. In a few moments I had my bluetooth up and running and was being fed the time from her official NASA clock along with the major checklist clearances in real-time. I had the nasa radio app on my iPhone, but with so many locals doing the same thing I kept getting bumped off. This was a MUCH better solution. I kept the four of us updated and when Atlantis cleared the 5 minute barrier the energy clicked up to the next number on the dial. The murmers got louder, kids got hollered at to get ready and Frisbees and footballs all disappeared. Neil had his camera spooled up on the tripod and while I had my camera, I decided to simply sit back and watch this event. Take it all in. When Rob and I did the B-17 flight at Oshkosh last year I spent the first 15 minutes snapping pictures and exploring, but then settled down to simply observe and soak in the four radial engines transmitting their thunder through the airframe, the sound of the wind over the skin and the smells this combat goliath emanated. It was the most enjoyable part. 

The crowd north and south about a half hour prior to the event

You can see me in the reflection taking the pic as well as Neil's camera setup and Neil fiddling with something. TAMU FTW!!!

So there we were: Sitting in the bed of a pickup truck from Texas waiting. The wind was pretty strong out of the east, but no delays had been encountered when the 1 minute barrier was shattered. I say 'shattered' because the effect on the beach was that of a wave of even more energy breaking through the network of people. Talking became louder, the intensity raised a notch and the stares across the water became more serious. My countdown was coming continuous now with me marking every 5 seconds to the others. When it hit 15 seconds it was like the hand of God hit the mute button on this portion of the world. Final breaths were inhaled and I mentally shot a miniscule prayer for safety skyward. At 10 seconds the energy soared completely off the best-sporting-event-of-all-time scale and into the realm of is-this-even-possible, as hairs I didn't even know I had began transmitting signals to my electrified brain. At 5 seconds my lips uttered a quiet 'cmon baby' and I blinked away a little extra moisture that was developing and could begin to see a white plume (main engines) going laterally away from the pad. At 1 second the other side of the pad blew massive plumes very quickly and then Atlantis became free of the earth to begin her final scheduled* journey to space. As the tower was cleared she rolled and disappeared behind the main tank, still mostly vertical. Shortly thereafter she began to tilt over onto her back and head away from us and then it happened. This experience that had tears rolling down my cheeks in awe of the completeness of this sensory overload added the dimension of sound. It was not enough that we were all collectively willing this living machine to safely take our brothers to space while being blessed with the fantastic sight before us, we were now greeted with the soundtrack that was mixed by Zeus himself. It rolled across the water as a crackling rumble at first, like a distant Rolling Thunder launch of Superfortresses. As Atlantis rolled further upon her back the sound greeting us kept upping the volume and bass with every passing second. While it never got deafeningly loud or anything, the sheer magnitude of the all-encompassing noise was beyond terrific. The energy of the crowd was now erupting in cheers and waves of clapping as the Atlantis clawed her way through the sound barrier along with the accompanying audible signature of that event. Soon the solid rocket boosters peeled off and shortly after that she was gone. It had all taken less than three minutes and the only physical reminder was a rapidly deteriorating vapor trail being blown about by the winds. The emotional effects, for me, will never be blown anywhere. I'll live the rest of my days being able to replay that scene in my head anytime I wish. Surely it will be augmented by the close up video I've also seen, but the entire aura of a lunch is now etched with me. Could a crowd of strangers feel more collectively proud? I don't think so. Smiles all around now, the crew was in orbit and an exit strategy needed executing.

 

A moment after Neil snapped this pic the roll program initiated and the shuttle was hidden

JUST beginning to arc onto her back, the Atlantis is putting out some serious smash!

My obligatory iPhone snap

Booster separation!

The bright dot is the three main Shuttle engines, the smudges are the SRBs falling away

Both SRBs are to the right of the Shuttle now

She's in orbit now. The only thing left is the trail. I left the assembly building in the frame (far right) for scale!!

*I say 'scheduled' journey to space, but Atlantis will indeed be prepped one more time. She will be the 'on call' orbiter for the final Shuttle launch and in the event of an emergency on Endeavour following the scheduled November launch, Atlantis would be shot into space to rescue the crew and provide them a ride home.

Yes, there was some traffic, but it wasn't bad at all. Our spot allowed us direct access to a main road heading out and we were soon picking a place to recon some dinner back in Orlando.

Awesome clip of the launch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5nxN0ooD5M

And of the return: http://video.foxnews.com/v/4213671/atlantis-returns-to-earth (short commercial first....sorry)

 

Interesting road sign. Evidently the Moon was a dead end...

We got up early the next morning and headed out the the Kennedy Space Center and were there about 20 minutes before it opened. Having done this before Neil knew to immediately take the busses to the three off-site locations to view them all first and then come back and do the main area. Worked like a CHAMP. The KSC is AWESOME. Totally incredible. They move you around Disney-like-effecient, good short videos to keep you updated but not bored, TONS of stuff to read and soak in and a gift shop rivaling small malls. We saw the crawlers, launch facilities, an indoor Saturn V up close, rockets, rode the launch simulator (two thumbs WAAAY up!!), saw actual capsules, moon rocks, etc etc. If you are into this type of stuff at all, it is well worth the price of admission and your time. It was awesome!

 

The shade for the entryway is a cool solar-panel mockup with an EVA guy!

Neil taking a shot of the Gemini capsule. I left him in there for scale. Two folks in there....in space....

Pretty darn small if you ask me...

The Assembly building. Cars in foreground are still WAY far from the huge building.

Yup, you sharp eyed readers noticed the Fiero Convertible. Ahhh, those trixy nasa hobbitsis!!!

Note the mix-matched wheels and brave use of primer!!

Other side of assembly building showing the viewing windows of launch control. Note external staircase for scale.

Fitting.

Me snapping a pic of that Saturn V bad-boy!!

On the way back from the KSC, we stopped at the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum. They have a nice collection of stuff and Neil and I spent a few hours wandering around on a self-guided tour chatting up the aircraft and telling the information that we both knew about the quiet airframes. If you're in the area and like this type of stuff, it is money and time well spent!!