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May 15, 2010

STS-132 Launch Crowd

Tens of thousands of space enthusiasts converged on Kennedy Space Center on Friday, May 14, 2010, to witness the final launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis. I was fortunate to be among the crowd. As I waited in my rental car on Route 405, I spotted license plates from DC, Alabama, New York, Pennsylavania, and lots from Florida carrying Floridians and those of us from elsewhere in rental cars.

The sea of cars slowly creeped toward the KSC Visitor's Center where I joined my husband for a bus ride to the Saturn V building. There were two sets of bleachers outside this building: one set for the extended family of the crew, and another much larger set for NASA and other guests who were fortunate enough to secure passes. The bus guide said that the bleachers hold 2500, but that 5000 people had passes. We ran into several friends --Yohon Lu from Huntsville L5 and Chet Vaughan from the NASA Alumni League. We found a spot on the grass.

In front of us on the grass was a Navy pilot ("Stroke") who had flown with the Shuttle's pilot. He wanted to share this launch experience with his boys, ages 7 and 9. Behind us on lawn chairs was the mayor of Jacksonville, FL and 3 of his college friends who peppered my husband and I with questions about the shuttle after we introduced ourselves as former flight controllers.

A countdown clock behind us served as a great place for folks to get their photo taken, and one excited, smiling group after another lined up beside it.

The launch was spectacular! I had only seen one launch before, and that was from the Causeway. The main difference this time, besides being in daylight (!), was the brightness of the fire sprouting from the tail. The noise, which I had expected to be louder, was actually less--or maybe I've gotten hard of hearing in the intervening ten years! We suspect this was a result of the wind direction.

After launch (see my amateur video on my Facebook page, complete with jiggling camera and pans of the crowd and me waving at the end) we waited in line for a bus back to the visitors' center. We met a young woman who works for Disney who always wanted to see a launch up close, and two women from Ohio (where I am also from).

Later, at the Nebula Awards weekend book signing and reception at the Cocoa Beach Hilton, everyone eagerly shared their launch viewing experiences--some watched from the KARS parking area just outside the KSC gate, some from the Causeway, and at least one from Route 95 where they narrowly avoided a traffic accident as distracted drivers were captivated by the sight of a space shuttle rocketing skyward!

Everyone I spoke with expressed how important it was to them to be here to witness this launch, and the sense of loss we all share that Americans will not be seeing any more of these events after this year.

The STS-132 crew is on their way to the International Space Station, due to arrive Sunday and unload, and via three space walks and transfers, install their cargo of new batteries and other spare parts.

On the bus from the launch, the guide asked if we knew the name of the shuttle commander--and most everyone did. Everyone had buttons and press packs and patches... and their crew photos were plastered everywhere. But when I asked if anyone on the bus knew who was on the space station, my husband and I were the only ones who knew the Americans: T.J. Creamer and Tracey Caldwell Dyson (how could I forget that name!). The other Expedition 23 crew are Oleg Kotov,, Soichi Noguchi, Alexander Skvovtsov, and Mikhail Korenienko.

It is going to be a challenge to keep interest and awareness in human spaceflight once the shuttle is retired-- the out-of-sight, out-of-mind syndrome. The launches will all be in Russia, and only a handful of Americans are likely to ever see one of those.

But coming to this launch was heartwarming and encouraging to me even though the sense of nostalgia is strong. I could see and hear for myself that people DO care about their space program, they care enough to fly and drive and wait in line and take off work and bring their children and spend scarce funds to witness and be part of space history.

Thank you to the NASA team who welcomed the crowds and patiently answered the same questions over and over and got us to where we needed to be with a smile and good wishes for our future.

To the stars!

Marianne Dyson
NSS advisor

Posted by m_dyson at May 15, 2010 11:39 AM



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