Mum and I spent all day on Thursday July 7th traveling to Florida in anticipation of the launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis at 11:26 am on Friday the 8th. This was the 135th and final launch of the space shuttle program. There is no replacement program.
We checked into our hotel in Palm Bay around midnight Thursday (eastern time zone). Friday we awoke at 4:30 am. Our tickets and parking pass indicated we were to arrive by 7 am. Unsure how traffic would be, we wanted to leave an ample buffer for our google maps prediction of 45 minutes travel to be grossly wrong. After a shower, some breakfast in our room, and packing for the day, we were on the road. We arrived at the Kennedy Space Centre Astronaut Hall of Fame around 6:30 we set ourselves up in the north-east corner of the viewing grounds and had a pretty much clear line of sight to launch pad 39A. The weather was sketchy and though it did not rain on us, the pad had intermittent rain all morning. Everything was looking good and all parameters were “go” except the weather. There must be no rain showers within a 20 mile radius of the pad in order for the crew to be able to make a clear Return To Launch Site (RTLS) landing in case of emergency. The forecast reading gave an official prediction of 30% likelihood of launch appropriate weather.
At this point the shuttle is nearly done being fueled with almost 1.9 million liters of liquid hydrogen and oxygen. In short order we are watching the final pre-launch inspections being done as the close out crew arrives to prepare for the arrival of the crew. The crew begins making its way to the shuttle shortly after 8 am. They travel in an ’83 Airstream Astrovan.
Over the next two hours the shuttle crew is helped into the orbiter the close out crew ensures everything and everyone within the cockpit is ready for launch. They then very meticulously seal the hatch and do a pressure test to ensure there are no leaks. During this time launch weather compliance likelihood officially increased to 60%.
At T minus 9 minutes the official GO/NO-GO for launch is conducted but there is still intermittent rain! A waiver is given for the weather; even though there are occasional showers, they are clearing and will be gone by the time an RTLS event would occur.
Less than a minute to go and the tension builds! At about T-45 the main tank Gaseous Oxygen Vent Arm retracts from the top of the main tank. At T-31 everything then stops! The vent arm was not reading as fully retracted! From our location at the we could hear the radio chatter being broadcast live as Launch Control tried to get a visual confirmation that the arm was retracted. After two minutes of checks and double checks, everything was deemed safe for launch and the countdown resumed.
At T-6 the main engines start (the three middle ones that feed off the big orange tank). The shuttle is still clamped to the ground at the solid rocket boosters. The shuttle rocks forward and then backwards under the strain of its main engines. At time “T”, 11:29:03.9 am, we have SRB Start (Solid Rocket Booster, the ones on the side), the clamps release, and moments later, “Lift off!”
STS-135 launch as seen from the KSC Astronaut Hall of Fame
The shuttle is traveling over 100 km/h by the time it clears the tower. A few seconds later when it broke the sound barrier I could feel and hear the shockwave. Once it had disappeared, I had spots in my vision from the intensity of the light from the rocket engines. What a sight. Worth all the anticipation.