Launch day. Friday, July 8, 2011.
The Press Site at Kennedy Space Center would be open at 05:00, and I wanted to be there before sunrise so I could capture Atlantis perched on Launch Pad 39A, basking in bright xenon lights. I picked Phil (@philanderegg) up early and we headed to the Space Center.
I got my xenon photos. Unfortunately, the other STS-135 attendees had similar ideas: the good seats in the twent had all been taken. Phil and I found a couple of seats in a table all the way in the back corner. There were a lot more press at the site than there had been Thursday. People had lined the bank with their tripods, using them to save their spaces. I found a relatively wide opening and placed mine among the others.
The highlight of the pre-launch activities for me was an appearance by national hero and STS-1, STS-7, STS-41-C and STS-41-G astronaut Bob Crippen. He was friendly and answered questions, but was notably bothered that the space shuttle era was ending without having in place a system to launch humans into Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) and beyond. He implored us to tweet that young people should take the hard classes of math and science, because they are hard. He decried the decline in the United States of our supremacy in education. He denounced our fascination with celebrities who contribute nothing, instead of making heroes of scientists, inventors, and those who dream big and accomplish much. I delighted in Crippen’s message, as it mirrored my own without exception. His four shuttle flights, including the unknowns and tremendous risks of the first, and long history with NASA give him ample authority. I had been excited for Bob’s visit, and couldn’t have been more pleased with his message.
We watched the Astrovan drive by, posed for a group photo by the Countdown Clock, and waited for the launch. The weather reports weren’t favorable; forecasts were mostly unchanged from Thursday. I had my GoPro HD Hero recording the clouds roll by and was encouraged by occasional blue spots and thinning of the cloud layer.
At about ten minutes prior to the scheduled launch time of 11:26 I left the tent to set up my cameras on the tripod I had positioned early that morning. I had my GoPro HD Hero on the top to shoot wide-angle video, my long-zoom point-and-shoot attached to a gorillapod and clinging to the tripod to shoot close video, and my iPhone 4 was attached to and clinging by a gorillapod to record audio. I shot handheld stills with my 300mm zoom lens on my Nikon D70S body.
I was thrilled to find Trey Ratcliff (@TreyRatcliff) had set up just to my left. I engaged him in conversation, as I had at lunch the previous day. He was shooting a lot of photos VERY quickly. It was fun to shoot a historic event next to one of my favorite photographers.
There was no audio broadcast of the countdown at the Press Site, so we were mostly unaware of what was going on. There were a few people who had ham radios and would make announcements, which spread as effectively as message in the game “Telephone.” Unbeknownst to most of us, there was a problem with the indication relating to the GOX Vent Hood arm which delayed the launch for three minutes.
When the countdown got within t-minus ten seconds the crowd began to count down in unison. At t-minus six we could see the smoke and steam from main engines. At t-minus zero seconds Atlantis lifted from the pad and begin to climb the long hill to orbit. I was snapping photos as fast as I could with my long lens, but could not control the shaking. It wasn’t the sound, which hadn’t reached the Press Site: it was from a massive adrenaline surge that was coursing through my body. That reaction was totally unexpected and unfamiliar. I have never had trouble controlling camera shake.
The flames from the engines and solid rocked boosters are extremely bright. At t-plus nine seconds the sound waves from the main engines finally arrive at the Press Site. Six seconds later–a full fifteen seconds after liftoff–the sounds from the SRBs reach the Press Site. The loud, low, crackling rumble is difficult to express and must be experienced to be appreciated. Suffice it to say, the sound is more felt than heard. It’s not ear-piercing; it’s felt in the chest, and is impressive!
As Atlantis punched through the low cloud layer hanging over the Cape and continued to climb, the shadow from its smoke on the top of the clouds formed an acute angle with the smoke trail beneath the clouds.
When we could no longer see the orbiter and the sound had been reduced by distance to barely audible, I looked around at the people surrounding me. They were crying, cheering, taking photos, and reviewing the photos on their cameras. I knew I should document my expression at that moment, for progeny, of course. I held my iPhone 4 at arm’s length and snapped a self-portrait.
What I was feeling was numb elation. It was a weird and mostly unfamiliar sensation. I gathered my cameras and walked back to the twent. I had planned on tweeting and blogging my reactions, but found myself unable to put thoughts to words. I was overwhelmed by it all. I sat there in my chair reading the tweets of others, and trying to put things into some sort of perspective.