When I was a child, I always wanted to go into space. In fact, if I recall correctly, most of my friends and I, at one point or another, wanted to be astronauts. I lived on the West Coast, so my parents awakened me very early on the morning of 12 April, 1981 to see the Space Shuttle Columbia blast off into orbit, signaling a new era in space exploration. At that moment, John Young and Robert Crippen were my heroes. I wanted more than anything to one day be in their shoes, riding millions of pounds of thrust into space.
Thirty years later, as Atlantis touched down on 21 July of 2011, I still hadn’t seen space in person…and had never seen a Space Shuttle launch. Bucket List items unchecked. Then came the announcement the next phase of manned space flight, known as Constellation, had been canceled by the Obama administration. At that point, it was anyone’s guess as to when humans might venture beyond our own atmosphere once more.
The newest spacecraft in a generation, and the one NASA is counting on to take us first to the moon, then an asteroid, and then eventually on to Mars. Touted as the safest, most advanced spacecraft ever built, and I think we all collectively held our breath on 5 December when the launch window re-opened after the previous day’s attempt was scrubbed.
So there I was, my first time on Kennedy Space Center, for my first real rocket launch. Admittedly, I was pretty giddy with anticipation. I had no frame of reference for what the experience was going to be like, so it was all new. Up at 0230 to make the hour-long drive to the facility to catch a bus out to the viewing area. Dark, low-hanging clouds, and only a forty-percent chance of successful launch. It had rained overnight, so there was an air of pessimism, but also a quiet confidence that this day would be different.
Right as the launch window opened at 0705, Orion lit up the pre-dawn sky and lifted off a pad in Launch Complex 37. The viewing area was eight miles distant, and the Delta IV Heavy Rocket was nearly into the clouds by the time the sound reached us, but it was…..amazing. It was a rumble unlike anything I’d ever heard or felt previously, and I’ve been around some loud airplanes– the B-1, F-22, F-35, and SR-71 to name a few. This was different.
For those who have been around and seen shuttle launches and the like, you know what I’m talking about. For those who haven’t, you’ll just have to experience it for yourself. I can’t really describe the sound, and the sensation was quite visceral. Awesome in the truest sense of the word and I felt my heart race and my breathing get shallow as I watched Orion accelerate away from us.
For those few moments, I got to be a little kid again, and it was worth the pain of dragging myself out of bed at such an ugly hour and rolling the dice as to whether or not good fortune would smile on the morning’s scheduled event. The sunrise was a spectacle of pinks and oranges, and though Orion disappeared into the clouds very quickly after launch, the sound of America’s dreams of deep space travel rumbled on for some time. It was history…and I was there to witness it firsthand.
It was humbling. It was inspiring. Most of all, it made me grateful for the chance to witness it, and for the opportunities I’ve been given and people I’ve met that have made such moments possible.
(Featured Image Courtesy: NASA)