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Two of our bloggers, Harrison Earl and Bill Owen, were invited (by different groups, no less) to the recent shuttle launch, and their stories are so good, we are excited to share them both with you.


Last week, I had the incredible good fortune to be in the observation stands on the banks of the Banana River to watch the lift-off of the Space Shuttle Atlantis on its final mission--STS-132.   Our friends at the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority (GOAA) partnered with NASA and some of their other colleagues in the Central Florida tourism industry to put together a whirlwind trip for invited airline Schedule Planners to show us what's new in Orlando, culminating with seats in the stands at the Kennedy Space Center's Saturn V Center watching one of the final three launches in the Space Shuttle program.

Now, let me first frame for you how much of a Big Deal this was for me.  I've been watching NASA rockets blast off on TV since the Mercury program.  When I was in school, a Gemini or an Apollo launch warranted the rolling into my classroom of a portable black-and-white set so we could watch the grainy image of the blast-off.  Moon landings, Apollo 13, and splashdowns are vivid childhood memories, all delivered via the television.  I remember how excited I was to watch my first blast-off on a color TV.  I clearly remember where I was and who was in the room with me when Challenger exploded in 1986.  I'll never forget walking out into my back yard that cold, clear Sunday morning in 2003 when the Space Shuttle Columbia came directly over the Dallas area in flaming, shattered pieces.  So make no mistake:  I'm a huge fan of NASA's space program, and have celebrated their victories and mourned their losses right along with the agency itself.  Yet after 32 years of having flight benefits I've never even been in the State of Florida when a rocket went up.  So to be permitted (let alone invited!) to attend one of the last launches of the world's first re-usable space vehicle was just HUGE for me.

So Friday morning, May 14th, the group of airline planners and GOAA staff boarded a bus from the beautiful Hyatt Regency inside the Orlando International Airport at 9:30 a.m. for what under normal circumstances would be a 45-minute commute to the Kennedy Space Center, leaving us ample time to view the 2:20 p.m. launch.  Or so we thought.  We were warned that traffic would be heavy.   None of us ever expected how heavy!  We arrived at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex after three hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  After clearing security, we (literally) ran to board one of the last busses to the Saturn V Center and viewing area.  We got to the center with less than an hour to spare.  After a quick run through the Gift Shop we walked into the cavernous display area.  An entire Saturn V rocket is suspended above the display area--all 363 feet of it.  Absolutely amazing.

Heading out to the stands, we got our first glimpse across the Banana River to Pad 39, where Atlantis was ready for "immediate departure."  The departure clock is at T-minus-20 in a pre-planned hold, but even the NASA commentators on the loud speakers are amazed at what a "clean" countdown process this had been.  It looks like the launch is actually going to happen as scheduled (which seldom happens!).   Once the countdown resumes the level of excitement among the crowd really cranks up.  Sitting there, baking in the hot Florida sun, the crowd gets quieter and quieter as the numbers on the countdown clock grow smaller, listening to the NASA countdown audio.


Get the camera out.  Is it set right?  Oh, I don't want to blow it!


Put the camera back up.  They told us it was a better idea to use the pics that would be posted on the NASA web site and just experience the launch unencumbered.


Please, oh please, don't let them scrub this launch!


Please, oh please, let the astronauts--Commander Ham, Pilot Antonelli, and Specialists Bowen, Good, Sellers, and Reisman--be safe!


Go for main engine start.


OMG this is actually going to happen!


Ridiculous amounts of white smoke begins to pour out of the base of Launch Pad 39.


Go for SRB ignition.


The first blast of pure white noise hits our ears in the viewing stands.


Here we go......


BLAST OFF!  Launch of Atlantis on Mission STS-132 to install the last modules of the International Space Station!

And at that instant the Shuttle literally leaps from the launch pad.  And I got the first glimpse of "rocket's glare."  It's not red--it's yellow.  And it's bright.  Really bright.  Amazingly bright.  Looking-into-the-sun bright.  As the shuttle accelerates (zero to 100 in just eight seconds!) it begins its rotation to a head-down attitude and turns just a little to our left.  Getting higher.  And higher.  And smaller.  All the while assaulting our ears with triple-digit-decible noise.  After just 60 seconds the vehicle is already travelling at over 1,000 mph and, despite being 40 miles away from the launch pad is still clearly, brightly visible.  Two minutes after launch, the two solid-rocket boosters fall away--I can see them separate from the shuttle and its main fuel tank.

And within a few more's over.  Out of view.  The crowd goes wild with applause, and then it's time to make one last trip through the Gift Shop (the only way into or out of the complex!) to board our busses back to the Visitor Center.

Now the logistics of getting more than 3,000 people bussed back to the Center, quickly, must be daunting.  To expedite the process NASA had borrowed busses from nearby UCF as well as contracted other bus firms--and the process was surprisingly efficient. All of us were back to the Visitor Complex by 3:30.  Which, given the severity of the inbound traffic, was about when we needed start our return trip (several of us had flights at 6:15 or so).  So yet another breakneck dash back to our bus and "on the road again" back to Orlando International Airport.

So what were my takeaways from from my launch experience?  Three words:  QUICK.  LOUD.  BRIGHT.  Four T-shirts.  Some amazing NASA-donated souvenirs.  Determination to go back for at least one more launch with my family before the program concludes and we allow the Russians to become our gatekeepers to space, at least for a while.  New ambition to become a launch "evangelist"--GO SEE ONE IN PERSON!  And memories that will last for the rest of my life!

Huge, MAJOR thanks to Vicki and Lissa with Orlando International Airport, to NASA for extending us the invitation and taking care of us so well, to all of the civic leaders that we met at breakfast on Friday morning, and to the major tourism destination that gave us an incredible treat on Thursday night. 

But I can't talk about that.  Yet.  Standby for another blog post after I'm "cleared" to share details!