Space shuttle Atlantis lifted off right on schedule this afternoon, in one of the most glorious sights I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. My heart started pounding about at about T minus one minute and counting. Along with the hearts of I don’t know how many thousands of people gathered on the NASA causeway, a few miles from the launch pad, with a gorgeous, clear view across open water. Somewhere around that time it hit me that there were six people inside that thing. I had the video camera running, but my eyes were glued to the binoculars. At T-10, I think we collectively stopped breathing. Then the main engines lit, bright orange for the first few seconds. A few moments later came the white plume from the solid boosters. The light was blazingly intense, far brighter than any video you’ve seen, shockingly bright. Then it lifted from the pad–we were all yelling and applauding, and about that time, the sound of the engines reached us–a deep, crackling rumble–and it rocketed into the sky, the engines lighting up its own contrail. Remembering Challenger, we all breathed a sigh of relief when the solid boosters fell away, just barely visible. When we finally lost sight of the dwindling star, it was hundreds of miles downrange, sixty-something miles in altitude, and (the last I had heard from the loudspeakers) traveling over six thousand miles per hour, well on its way into orbit.
All this took just minutes. And those few minutes were worth the entire trip.
That was about nine hours ago, and I’m still replaying the vision in my head. It was stunning, exhilarating, moving, beautiful. And sad, because we know that the era of the space shuttle is nearing an end.
I’ve got some video footage that I’ll put together when we get home in a few days. Look for it in a future post. In the meantime, we’ll be enjoying the Nebula Awards weekend. And…godspeed, Atlantis!