L-0 Launch Day: Live from Space Shuttle Atlantis Launch for #NASATweetup

"Reflection" a pre-dawn Atlantis after the rain.
Photo credit: Doug Wheelock.
Thursday night we all went to bed a little worried, after copious amounts of rain, even moonsoon-like at times, had drenched Kennedy Space Center Thursday. NASA told us there was only a 30% chance of the Space Shuttle Atlantis launch happening on Friday.

This led me to tweet: "The sky's crying because it's sad the shuttle program's ending. THERE'S NO CRYING AT #NASATWEETUP! Buck up - we've got a bird to fly!"

We'd know by 2 a.m. Friday morning if they'd give the green light for tanking (which means they'd put the fuel in Atlantis).

I went to bed optimistic. The next morning, I awoke to hear these sweet words from my housemate Tristan: "I can see stars." A break in the clouds, just what we needed! And NASA had given the go for tanking, so things were looking up.

We all piled into our cars to leave the rental home (lovingly dubbed #DiscoveryHouse) to begin the trek to Kennedy Space Center. Apropos of nothing, "Come on Eileen" by Dexys Midnight Runners came on the radio as soon as I started the car. I laughed, thinking, "Come on Atlantis...fly!" For the rest of my life, whenever I hear that song I'll think of this day.

7 a.m. at the countdown clock.
We'd been warned to leave a ton of time to get to KSC, as they were expecting nearly 1 million people on the Space Coast for the launch. Since we had credentials to get us in Gate 2, the employee gate, we luckily hit little to no traffic and got to the press site in about 20 minutes.

Even though it was only 5 a.m., the air buzzed with excitement as we walked toward the press area to the Tweetup tent. Tripods lined the turn basin, ready to catch that magic moment when Atlantis left Earth to ascend skyward. We all set up our gear in the pre-dawn light, simultaneously nervous, excited, and worried. Would she fly? We soon received word from NASA: "No technical issues standing in the way of an 11:26 a.m. launch. Weather 30% 'go.'"

Bob Crippen, first space
shuttle pilot.
I paused for a moment and looked around at my fellow tweeps, taking it all in. I've worked some pretty big events like the Oscars, Women's World Cup and Super Bowl, but this...this topped them all.

I've said it a thousand times, but it's worth saying again: Thank you so much to Stephanie Schierholz and the entire team at NASA for making this #NASATweetup event possible for us 150 mere mortals. With all the hoopla around the historic nature of this mission, they easily could have scrubbed the tweetup. Instead, not only did they keep it, they went above and beyond with the behind the scenes tours and special guests over a fantastic 2-day period.

Speaking of the latter, even on launch day we got to hear some pretty memorable folks. Bob Crippen, the first space shuttle pilot and former director of the Kennedy Space Center, took time out of an undeniably busy day, to share some of his memories with us.

Seth Green hung out with us for awhile.
The somber mood was broken during the Q&A when Seth Green, a big fan and supporter of the space program, asked, "Did you ever want to take the shuttle for a joy ride?" to which he responded, "We were professionals" as laughter filled the tent.

We all walked over to the road to join the crowd that had assembled to cheer on the crew as they made their way from the holding area to the launch pad. Dubbed the Astro Van, it's a cool old-school looking van.
The Astro Van carries the
astronauts to Launch Pad 39A.

We cheered loudly as they passed, then headed back to the tent, where we soon found out from the chief weather person: "We're looking green for launch!" The place erupted, then people began heading outside to grab their vantage point. I stayed behind in the tent a little longer to watch the live feed from the white room.

As each of the closeout crew finished up their final duties loading the space shuttle crew into their seats, he held up a sign with a farewell message. I'll admit, I got misty eyed.

The pageantry of the routine, much like the national anthem and color guard presentation before a sporting event, still gets to me. Pride welled in my heart; this was beyond beautiful.

We inched toward the final launch, and I began to get nervous. You know those butterflies you get in your stomach the day of your wedding? Yeah, it's kind of like that.

All #NASATweetup peeps in front of the countdown clock. I'm
third from left. Photo credit: NASA.

The loudspeakers came to life, and I heard the following conversation, which gave me goosebumps:

Launch Director Mike Leinbach to commander Chris Ferguson: "On behalf of the greatest team in the world, good luck to you and your crew on the final flight of this true American icon. And so for the final time...good luck, Godspeed and have a little fun up there."

Ferguson: "The crew of Atlantis is ready for launch. For the record, I'm go."

Leinbach: "You are clear to launch Atlantis."

Ferguson: "Roger that."

Having cleared the obligatory 45 minute hold at the T-9 minute mark, I headed out to take up a spot next to the countdown clock to witness history. And here's where things got a little hairy. At T-31 seconds, they called a hold. The computers showed the beanie cap hadn't retracted.

So began the longest 2 minutes and 19 seconds of my life. There's only a small window to launch each day, so that the shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS) can sync up. (I learned all of this in the past 2 days!) In a fortunate turn of events, I happened to be standing next to someone who was getting a live relay of the events. A collective sigh of relief went up once the countdown clock resumed.

And...history happened.

Our view of the launch. Photo credit: Wicho.

Plumes of rich white smoke billowed first to the right, then the left of the launch pad. Then Atlantis smoothly kickstarted off Earth and began the journey skyward. There's a little heat, and the ground rumbled, but it's the crack of sound that stands out most. Tristan described it perfectly: "It's like the air's being ripped apart."

Tears sprung to my eyes, uncontrollably and instantly. Tears of joy, of awe, of wonder. Sure, I've seen launches on TV, but with all the special effects in movies I think we, as a society, have become desensitized to what something like this looks like live.

There aren't adequate enough words in the English language to describe the site of seeing people leave the Earth, and all the work that went into making that happen. The closest words that fit are "spectacular" and "majestic" but even those don't feel fitting enough for such an occasion.

See for yourself (this angle is next to the launch pad from the viewing area we visited Thursday).

I kept repeating to myself, "Beautiful. Beautiful." A bunch of folks have asked where are my pictures or video of the launch. Surprisingly, I took none. Schierholz gave us the best advice: "Put down your cameras. We have professionals documenting the event."

I'm so glad I did. Taking pictures of an event to prove you were there is the new t-shirt souvenir. And trust me, as someone who documents everything, this was tough. But boy, am I glad I did. It was such a powerfully magical moment, and I let myself take it in in all its wonder.

A view of State Road 405 shortly after the launch.
Cluster! Photo credit: Webcams Galore.
Remember those million people who came to the Space Coast to view the launch? At some point they all had to leave, and there's only 1 main drag in and out of Kennedy Space Center. Here's the view of State Road 405. It looks like the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse.

There you have it: 3 weeks ago I found out I won the golden ticket to the lottery of a lifetime. And today I witnessed history. I'm trying to wrap my head around it; I'm not sure I ever will.

So what did I take away from it all? I'll remember the 6 people who started out as strangers in Discovery House and left as fast friends. I'll remember the kindness of NASA and Stephanie Schierholz for bringing us all together and opening up KSC to us. But most of all, I'll remember the tenacity of the mission crew and supporting team.

The next time someone tells you you've only got a 30% chance at accomplishing your goal, whether it's work-related or beating cancer, remember Atlantis.

Related posts:
My TEDx talk on Space Shuttle Atlantis, Cancer, and Life...and the 30% That Binds Them
On Being Invited by NASA to the Final Space Shuttle Launch
L-2 Days 'Til Launch: Arrival in Cape Canaveral for #NASATweetup
L-1 Day 'Til Launch: Day 1 #NASATweetup Recap


John said…
Great re-cap, Kara. I watched it all on TV, but obviously, there's nothing like being there in person.
Kara said…
Thanks, John! You are so right about TV being different. I'm grateful to have seen it live. :)
uncle soupy said…
the last paragraph says it all, kara!
uncle soupy said…
uncle soupy=stu cohen...
Kara said…
Thanks, Stu!