The final launch of the shuttle program has captured imaginations more than any space flight in a long while. Among those captivated are younger Americans who weren't even born when the first shuttle mission roared skyward in 1981. Two regular contributors to NewsWorks, reporter Aaron Moselle and videographer Kim Paynter, are two of the 20-somethings who felt they just had to be there. They were going anyway, so we figured, what the heck, let's have them blog and record the final flight of the Atlantis.
These are their reports.
I remember watching cable TV with my dad as a kid. Stations like Discovery and the Learning Channel were on nightly, and shows about ancient Egyptians and circling sharks were the sounds that kept me company as I fell asleep. More often I would sneak out of my room to watch after my dad had fallen asleep. This is how I became acquainted with the space program, whether the show was a dramatic tale of Cold War races or a look into the future of space habitation.
Unlike dinosaur specials, the space exploration stories stuck. All through my life, whenever things were going wrong for me, I could think of the physicists and astronauts of the space program and feel OK. Their optimism and perseverance are damned inspiring, if you consider that what was once just another national defense mission against our enemies now has enabled us to communicate with them around the world. Thanks, satellites!
I thought of this as I stood in the press site at the Kennedy Space Center today, wondering whether I would get the chance to see the last shuttle launch, feeling sorry for myself, cursing those thick Florida clouds and the ambiguity of NASA about whether it would launch. If the answer were no, I would be devastated. But as I claimed my lagoon spot to point my video camera at Atlantis, I was surrounded by reporters from all nations, and bizarrely, right next to a Russian reporter who was transmitting the story to his home country. (Quite loudly, too. It can be heard clearly on my video above.)
When the launch countdown got paused at 31 seconds, I remembered to be optimistic, telling myself that I would be one of the lucky ones that got to tell the story of the last shuttle launch. Then it happened: A huge plume of smoke rose from the island! The roar of the rockets was nothing compared to the roar of the crowd. I felt fear and surprise and joy and that slight lump in my throat, and before my hands had even stopped shaking, there were people just like me in space!
Now as I watch the footage, my footage, of Atlantis' launch, the lump in my throat returns. It might not be the closest shot, and my hand definitely jerked as my tripod followed the shuttle, but it's mine, and I am part of the story and one of its storytellers.
As I packed up my equipment, the silly smile on my face must have given me away, because a BBC reporter said, "I can tell you've never covered a shuttle launch before!"
At least it's not just "never."
— Kimberly Paynter
When I finally made it to Titusville, Fla. today, I didn't know what to expect. Nine-hundred miles were suddenly reduced to a small stretch of Route 1. I had no interviews set up, but plenty of people to talk to.
Once I got moving, though, I quickly realized that this unfamiliar town was the right place to be. Everyone I talked to was more than thrilled to be there, which made my job easy and enjoyable. Their stories helped elevate and inform the moment.
I felt a sense of camaraderie with the out-of-towners – some from as far away as Australia. I had also come a long way to witness a special moment. They seemed to sense that and were excited to share their reasons for coming. This was history being made and they were ready to record their personal piece of that history.
The locals really helped put the launch in perspective. Sure, the day was about people sharing their fascination with space exploration, but it was also bittersweet for many. The shuttle program meant jobs and economic stability for folks in Titusville and elsewhere. Now, many are worried about what will happen to their hometowns with higher unemployment and no throngs of visitors.
That contrast made the trip well worth it. Not to mention the launch, which was grander and more beautiful than I had imagined. People cheered loudly during the countdown and during the launch itself.
Afterwards, though, there was a brief, but tangible silence as everyone took a moment to take in what they had just witnessed. But then it was go, go, go. People quickly scattered and within minutes the shared moment was over, never to be repeated.
I was sad to see it go.
-- Aaron Moselle
NewsWorks contributing correspondent
Friday, 1:48 p.m.
Bob Scott, from Swarthmore, Pa., rode down with three of his friends in makeshift shuttle that used an Xterra SUV as its base. Scott said the shuttle homage got a lot of attention on the way. People kept pulling out cameras to photograph the earthbound shuttle, he said.
The launch fulfilled his expectations. “That was incredible,” he said not long after the blastoff. “We found it completely awe inspiring.” Check back later for more on Scott’s singular pilgrimage to see the final shuttle launch.
— Aaron Moselle
Friday, 11:39 a.m.
The main booster engine drops away and begins a descent toward the Indian Ocean. Atlantis is flying solo out in space, orienting itself toward a flight to the International Space Station.
Friday, 11:29 a.m.
We have lift off! Atlantis makes its final, flawless, historic launch into space.
Friday, 11:16 a.m.
Moments ago Launch Commander Chris Ferguson, who went to school in Philly, confirmed the shuttle is go for launch, concluding his remarks with: "Let's light this fire one more time."
— Aaron Moselle
Friday, 9 a.m.
Still no word has reached the spectators in Titusville on whether the launch is a go or scrubbed.
One of the Pennsylvanians who made the same long trek down I-95 as Kim and I did was Bill Kocher of Collegeville. He's here with his wife and three sons, and it took them a cool 20 hours to make the trip.
Kocher tinkers with model rockets at home, and felt he just had to be here to see the real thing once.
"It's just the raw power," he said. "I want the kids to see it so they can say when they're my age that they saw the last launch."
— Aaron Moselle
Friday, 8 a.m.
A crowd estimated at a 750,000 people is clogging roads and greens spaces all around the launch site, and everyone has been looking up at mostly cloudy skies that threaten to postpone this morning's scheduled launch of Atlantis.
We got to Titusville, Fla., within view of the launch site, at 7:30 a.m., after a 17-hour drive down Interstate 95 from Philly.
Stayed last night in Palm County, Fla., about 90 miles north of Cape Canaveral. As we drove in today, traffic was not bad until we got near the Cape.
A hopeful sun just pierced through the clouds in Titusville, where only a skinny stretch of Route 1 and a slim waterway stands between spectators and the Kennedy Space Center.
Folks from all over the coutnry are lining up along this prime slice of real estate for a glance at Atlantis. Lawn chairs and blankets are everywhere and there's not a parking space in sight. And the smells of grilled meat and sun lotion mingle in the air.
Now, all we can do is wait to see if the launch goes off as scheduled.
— Aaron Moselle