Every now and then, perhaps when you least expect it, comes a once in a lifetime opportunity. The weekend of September 8th and 9th was my chance, as I was invited to attend the launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center.
How was I so lucky? It was all thanks to a good friend and someone lots of folks know: Bill "Bubba" Bussey, of the Rick and Bubba radio show, which airs in Birmingham and is syndicated throughout the Southeast U.S.
Atlantis' Friday liftoff had to be scrubbed because of concerns over a possible faulty fuel sensor. NASA rescheduled liftoff for Saturday, and this time, despite a few minor issues (including weather), Atlantis' six member crew blasted off in a spectacular launch.
What made this trip even more special was our viewing site. As VIP guests of NASA, we were able to watch the launch from the fifth floor of NASA's Operational Services Building 2, a new building sporting a huge open deck overlooking KSC and Cape Canaveral. We were five stories up and 3.5 miles away from Atlantis, which, as Bubba observed, is as close as any human is allowed to the Shuttle when it's launching. We had a better view than almost anyone around (including the news media).
Here's the view from OSB 2's fifth floor observation deck. The white building at the left is Shuttle Launch Control, and just to the right, you can see Atlantis as it sat on the pad Friday:
Most folks watching Shuttle launches have to see them from ground level,
meaning that the Shuttle must climb some before it comes into their
view. Not so for us! From our vantage point, we could see the entire pad and
even the Atlantic beyond. In fact, this is the shot I got using my digital camera with a 6x optical
Bubba gives radio listeners a live update as the countdown clock ticks down Friday.
He's talking through a cellular interface built in to his sunglasses that connects, via Bluetooth, to his Palm phone. The other side of his glasses controls (I think) his Ipod. Talk about a technogeek!
Saturday morning: Atlantis' main engine and Solid Rocket Boosters fire, lifting the orbiter off Launch Pad 39B on its way to the International Space Station.
How about zero to 19,000 miles an hour in eight minutes? It is an incredible sight...
Five minutes later, a massive cloud signals Atlantis' successful fiery ascent.
We were able to get a great tour of the Cape, courtesy of Tim Taylor, a Hoover resident who works in the Shuttle program, who acted as our Tour Guide. Here, Tim, Bill and I check out the T-38s NASA's astronauts fly (these are those small aircraft you see following alongside the Shuttle when it lands).
"Did my pictures come out?" Don Juan, Rick and Bubba show producer, checks out his digital camera during our flight back to Birmingham.
Finally, our trip was even more special because of the ride. We flew down and back
in a privately owned Diamond Jet:
From wheels up in Birmingham to wheels down in Melbourne, Florida: 90 minutes. Sure beats driving. We had a great flight crew taking care of us--the ride was as smooth as could be. Just one warning about flying in style like this: You will never want to fly on a commercial airliner again!
I really do consider this a once in a lifetime experience and am so thankful for having had the chance to go. Being there in person to see a Shuttle launch is so much more vivid than watching it on television. When the blast wave hit us, the entire building shook. The noise was deafening, unlike anything I've ever heard in my life. The whole experience was emotional, nerve wracking and exhilarating, all at the same time. And to top it all off, NASA treated us (and fed us) like kings.
If you ever have doubts about whether we should be taking the risks and spending the money (and there's a lot of both involved) to further our knowledge of the universe, I hope you'll be open-minded enough to pay a visit in person and see for yourself what NASA is doing. The folks at NASA are some of the most brilliant the world has ever seen. And what they are doing is nothing short of amazing.
I hope that we never lose our vision to reach for the stars.