Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Girl Can Dream

Ever since I was a little girl, I've dreamed of seeing a Space Shuttle launch.
My wish came true on June 5, 2002, when I got to view the launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour on mission STS-111.  

Me and Mr. Hunter a few minutes after the launch.
That's the smoke from the launch plume in the background.

Space Shuttle Endeavour clears the launch pad!

My father worked on an experiment that flew to the ISS on the previous shuttle mission (STS-110) and that was set to come back down on Endeavour.  Because he'd worked on this experiment, he got VIP passes to both launches.  I can't even begin to express how thrilling this was.  That VIP section was at the wondrous Saturn V building, located about three miles from the launch pad (39A).

My mom and dad went to the initial launch of the experiment, in April 2002, and then my mom and I traveled to Florida for the Endeavour launch.  Space Shuttle fans will know that, ahem, endeavouring to actually be at Kennedy Space Center for a shuttle launch is partly a matter of luck, especially if you don't live in Florida.  

STS-111 was originally scheduled to launch on May 30, so we'd traveled to Florida on May 29 and had our return flight scheduled for the morning of June 5.  We went to that first launch attempt on May 30, but it got scrubbed. And then we had to wait each day and call a special NASA number to find out: would the shuttle go tomorrow?  It kept getting delayed, delayed, delayed.  Finally we called the airline to see if we could change our airline tickets without having to pay a ton of money.  Miraculously, we could.  Which meant that we could be there on June 5, when the next launch attempt was scheduled.

Even once we'd actually made it back to the bleachers outside the Saturn V building (they were comparatively empty, since many would-be shuttle watchers had had to go home), we had to wait it out to see if the weather would cooperate (no "anvil clouds"!) and if no technical issues would arise. You can literally get to the last few seconds of a countdown and see the launch get scrubbed.  But our luck -- and Endeavour's luck -- held.

My mom with the countdown clock.
We'd just heard that they anticipated no weather issues,
so we felt like maybe, just maybe,
we could let ourselves believe we'd see a launch.

Endeavour speeds into the sky behind a pleased Mr. Hunter.

It's tricky with a shuttle launch.  It happens fast.  I knew that I wanted to take pictures, but also I wanted to simply watch the shuttle ascend toward space.  So I snapped only a few photos, including a couple of quick attempts at getting Mr. H in the same frame with the shuttle.  (At the time, all I had was a film camera.)

The whole experience was actually a Zen sort of exercise.  I couldn't anticipate for sure that I would see the launch, but I also had to trust that I might.  I remember realizing that I felt more in the moment because of this.

Me, Mr. Hunter, a bit of the countdown clock,
and Space Shuttle Endeavour on the launch pad in the background.

The shuttle burst forth from the launch pad so quickly that its initial movement was too fast for my perception.  My first sight of Endeavour in flight was actually just after it had cleared the launch pad.  I remember suddenly seeing this space between the launch pad and the shuttle.

My parents had seen the previous shuttle launch in April, and I'd asked my mom, "How did it sound?  Was it loud?"  She told me that no, unexpectedly, it hadn't been loud.  This set me up to think that it wouldn't be very loud at all, so then I was surprised and pleased at the sound of the launch when I experienced it for myself.

In the first seconds of the launch, we couldn't hear anything, but then the sound began to travel toward us across the water.  I have synesthesia, so when I hear things I also get visuals of how these sounds look.  The sound of Endeavour launching from three miles away was a black sound to me, coming low across the water in waves, and there were spaces in between the black.  I remember standing on the bleachers and feeling the sound reach us.

I remember also how bright and sharp the light from the engines' fire was.  It was the sharpest, most piercing light I'd ever seen.  

Hard to see in a photo this size, but in the bottom right,
an alligator has just raised its head out of the water.
We'd noticed it before the launch, too, when it flopped up out of the water --
presumably catching something to eat.
        ..........the alligator is right up there ^

Back at home a few days later, my parents and I went out one night to see the International Space Station and Space Shuttle Endeavour cross our corner of the sky.  It was funny.  For some reason I'd grabbed a pair of binoculars, just to see if they'd give me a better glimpse, and I could actually discern the white triangle of the shuttle as it passed overhead.  I felt such a connection to that shuttle.  I remember my mom and I saying affectionately, "That's our shuttle."

Our Endeavour has finished its career now, and there's only one more shuttle launch to go before the fleet is retired.  It's a bittersweet time for a lot of us whose hearts have tagged along on these space shuttle journeys.

Anna Fisher,
from May 1985 issue of Life Magazine
via My Delineated Life blog

I include this image of astronaut Anna Fisher because when I was a girl, I saw this photograph in a magazine and was so inspired that I cut the picture out and kept it my box of special things, inspiring things.  For a long time I dreamed of becoming an astronaut.  By the time I'd hit my thirties, I realized that I probably didn't have the nature for it this time around.  But I was lucky enough to see a shuttle launch, at least, and even though I stood Earth-bound on the bleachers near the Saturn V building, a part of my soul sped up into the heavens with the astronauts.

Hail Endeavour!

Saturn V Building (and Launch Pad 39A)
Kennedy Space Center
Cape Canaveral, Florida

June 2002

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