Live From the Shuttle Launch: Atlantis Lifts Off

For days I’d been despairing—weather for the final space shuttle launch was predicted at just a 30 percent chance of liftoff. Sure enough, I landed in Orlando to sheets of rain, rumbling thunder, and news of a lightning strike at the launch pad.

But for its milestone final flight, Atlantis was in no mood to disappoint.

After a heart-stopping hold on the countdown clock at 31 seconds, the spacecraft roared to life today almost on schedule and glided into the sky, briefly drowning out the cheers of the crowds with crackling reverberations and leaving a glorious plume.

It’s hard to believe that my first shuttle launch is also *the* last. I was a toddler when the very first launch—the shuttle Columbia—happened in April 1981, so the shuttle has been the “it” machine of NASA pretty much my whole life.

Still, after 30 years, I can understand why the shuttle program is coming to a close.

I tried to watch the final flight of Endeavour, the next-to-last mission, in May. Weather that time was slated at a promising 80 percent “go” for launch. I made it to RSS rollback and crew walkout, and things seemed fine.

But mechanical issues shut down the show while the astronauts were en route to the launch pad.

They turned around and went back into quarantine, and I had to turn around and go home. The launch was delayed for days, finally making it when I was on travel elsewhere.

Apparently that’s the way life works for shuttles. Veteran photographers and journalists here at Kennedy Space Center smile ruefully when asked about how many scrubs they’ve sat through. Many have slept in the press center on multiple occasions.

My colleague Susan tells me she’s seen an amazing 17 launches in person—but that’s the result of more than 50 trips to Florida. You do the math.

At a time when the U.S. is facing budget woes and NASA is being asked to scrap major missions (ahem, James Webb) due to cost overruns, launches on the scale of the space shuttle seem especially extravagant.

At least when Atlantis lands, shuttle mission folk can say they’ve completed their main purpose: helping to build the International Space Station.

Now comes the challenge of helping to staff the ISS. We’ve got a deal with the Russians to fly astronauts aboard Soyuz spacecraft, and NASA is funding private spaceflight development, so gears are in motion.

In the meantime, the next 12 days of Atlantis’s mission will be especially poignant for those of us who grew up in the shuttle era.

Human Journey