Today, along with thousands of other people, we were able to see the space shuttle Atlantis lift off on it's last mission. It was fabulous.
It took us hours to get there. What is normally about a two and a half hour drive for us took four + hours. It was absolute bumper to bumper traffic as people near and far struggled to get near Cape Canaveral before launch time. On 528, we never went over ten miles an hour. Oh, and by the way, there are absolutely, positively no bathrooms in between I4 and Titusville. None. I stood in line at the first gas station we came to. A LONG line with lots of people and lots of accents and languages. Awesome. And I just want to say that the men took longer than the women in the bathroom. I will have you know that since I am a mom, I can be in and out in sixty seconds flat--and that includes washing my hands.
Halfway there the radio told us that the astronauts were being secured inside the shuttle. I couldn't help but picture them strapped in, their manliness slightly diminished due to their astronaut diapers.
We finally arrived to the approach of Kennedy Space Center with ten minutes to spare. Traffic just...stopped...in the middle of the road, and everyone got out of their cars and left them in the middle of the road. Gary put Laura on top of the car; I carried Jack on my hip. We realized the video camera was dead (!!) and pulled out my small camera. We got lucky: on the right was the Astronaut Hall of Fame. They were having a major event--selling tickets to a huge crowd so they could watch from their roof. We benefited from this by way of being able to view their HUMONGOUS screen which was playing the TV coverage. On the screen we could see Atlantis sitting on the launch pad, on our left, the view to the actual launch area at Cape Canaveral.
Five minutes. They played the national anthem. Thousands of us put our hands on our hearts and sang along, trying to remember whatever words we could. The "rocket's red glare" seemed quite apropos.
Three minutes to go. The energy built, excitement bubbled over from adults and children alike. The commentators on the radio and TV told us all the things being initiated...oxygen systems-go, etc. etc.
Finally, the countdown began, and in unison we shouted the last ten seconds.....FOUR, THREE, TWO, ONE...the screen on the right showed the engines bursting with flames. On our left we strained to see the shuttle liftoff...and there it was!!! It was absolutely beautiful. Everyone cheered and yelled, and Jack, not knowing exactly what was going on, clapped and yelled YAYYYY!
I cannot even describe to you how amazing it is. It is one of the most beautiful, powerful, exciting things I've ever seen.
After about ten seconds the sound caught up with us. The initial launch is absolutely quiet. But then the ground began to rumble and this tremendous noise washed over and enveloped us. Everyone yelled again. I really felt like a little kid, it was such an awesome experience. We watched the boosters drop off, and strained to see the bright white light of the shuttle engine for as long as possible. Finally, it was gone, only the trail of smoke left, and the commentators telling us that the shuttle was beyond the point of return for our continent. In case of a problem, they would attempt to land in Spain.
We all cheered again, then climbed back in our cars, turned on the blessed air conditioning, and began the slow crawl back to our coast.
I have found myself really sad about the ending of this shuttle program. Thinking about it, I realize that growing up in Florida, the shuttles almost seem like friends. They are such a part of our lives. Every few months we run out to our yards and docks and watch it lift up over our heads, a bright shining star zooming across the sky (never straight up). Occasionally when it returns to earth a sonic boom hits so hard it shakes our windows and moves our furniture. The last one happened in the middle of the night when Gary was out of town and Jack a few months old. It knocked Emma out of her bed and I was sure the Tropicana plant had exploded or a plane crashed or something dramatic before it dawned on me what it was.
As a youth I took field trips to Kennedy Space Center. My science teacher had a model of the shuttle on her desk. We were so excited about space travel then.
When I was in sixth grade Challenger exploded. It was still such a new, exciting program that we watched it on television in class. When the shuttle exploded we were stunned...we all went outside our classrooms and looked up in the sky. Above our heads was the trail of smoke with the tell-tale billowing cloud in the middle. I was sad, but still young enough that I didn't really understand the tragedy of it. My first clue was my mom coming to pick me up after school in our big, old, white van. I remember her parking next to the band room, the heavy door squeaking as I climbed in, her face streaked with tears.
As my children have grown we have had fun running outside to see the shuttle go over our roof. They especially appreciate it when it gets them out of bed-- "Go! Go! Hurry! Run, run it's coming, hurry!" I really want my children to have a shot at seeing the real thing, in person, as close as you can get. Emma was not able to come today, so we are planning a go (with the rest of the world) in September. This time we want to do it by boat.
We were in the car eight hours today for a three minute launch. We could have driven to Atlanta in that time.
And yes, it was totally worth it.
I am going to bed. I'm exhausted. Tomorrow I will link to my video of it.