Shuttle Atlantis

A Personal Story

I recently had the chance to live my dream. Well, sort of. For many years, I've really wanted to see a launch of a Space Shuttle. I mean REALLY wanted to see a launch. Sure, I've seen 'em on TV, but I knew it wasn't the same thing as seeing a launch in person.

robert shotwellThis dream of mine has a history going back to when I was a kid. When I was in eighth and ninth grades, our family lived in Titusville, Florida, just a few miles from Cape Canaveral. But, that's not where it ends. My father, Robert Shotwell, worked in the aerospace industry for many years. And, when we lived in Titusville, he was a test conductor on the Atlas missile for Convair, the contractor that developed the Atlas for the Air Force. When we left Titusville, we moved to Santa Maria, California, near Vandenberg Air Force Base, where Dad worked on another missile: the Titan.

But, let's get back to Titusville of the late '50's. This was when space travel was really only the dream of a few people. This was years before President Kennedy promised the U.S. would put a man on the moon by the end of the '60's. The late '50's was the time of the Vanguard, Atlas and the Titan. NASA didn't exist yet; missiles were being developed for the military.

During my two years in Titusville, I became immersed in space. My friends and I would head to the beach when we learned of a scheduled missile launch. Or, on school days, we'd let the teacher know and we'd run outside as soon as we heard a rumble. A few of us even home-built rockets, mixing our own black powder and launching rockets from empty lots. Living near Cape Canaveral is sort of like living in Hollywood. It's more or less a one-industry town.

So, with this backdrop, I'd wished and dreamed for recent years of seeing a Space Shuttle launch in person in Florida. No small feat, as I now live in Northwestern Washington state. So, last year I set out to plan a trip. I obtained News Media credentials, thanks to an association with my local newspaper, the Anacortes American. As my target, I chose flight number STS-101, a mission to the International Space Station. I've only met two Astronauts and one of them, Scott Horowitz, is on this flight as pilot. The only other Astronaut I met, Ellison Onizuka, died in the Challenger explosion years ago.

I watched the launch schedules via the Kennedy Space Center Public Affairs Office Web site, booked a flight and made it to Cape Canaveral for the launch of STS-101 in mid-April, 2000. I arrived very late Friday night for a Monday afternoon launch.

Launch pad

On Saturday, two days before launch, I was so excited, I got up early and headed out to the Press Center at the Cape (as locals call it). I took a bus orientation tour, which included a walk through the Vertical Assembly Building, where the shuttle is mated with it's booster rockets. The inside of the building is too big for a photo to make meaningful. We stopped at the launch pad for photos.

On Sunday, the day-before launch press briefing indicated weather would not be perfect, but was pretty close. The weather needs to be good not only at Cape Canaveral, but at emergency landing sites in Spain and Morocco. Evening: I took the press bus out to the launch site for pictures of the rollback of part of the service tower with the sun setting in the background.

Launch crew

Launch is set for 4:32pm, Monday. I went with the other reporters to watch the Astronauts walk to the van which takes them to the launch pad about 3 hours before launch. Countdown clock got to down to nine minutes to launch, but weather is not good at the Cape for an emergency landing…crosswinds are too high. Launch is scrubbed for 24 hours. Scrubbed is a launch term for postponed.

I'm back the next day and still ready. Launch is set for 4:17pm. Weather forecast isn't good for the emergency sites in Spain and Morocco, but NASA decides to go ahead and try anyway. Launch is scrubbed again…this time about a half-hour before launch. Again weather is the problem. NASA didn't really expect the launch to go, but they wanted everyone to practice.

Weather forecast is better for Wednesday with launch set for around 4pm. Same drill as yesterday. Clock gets down to about nine minutes before launch and it's scrubbed again. Weather at the Cape is good, but NASA reports the weather at an emergency landing site in Morocco is just a hair out of range. Sounds like they were trying to find a way to justify launch anyway.

Next launch date will be set later. This is the first time NASA has attempted to launch 3 days in a row. I head back home, disappointed.

A week later, NASA sets a new launch date for Thursday, May 18. Even before I leave home, I discover the launch is postponed one day. Too late to change my plane reservations. I have one of those cheap fares which would be way too costly to change.

I arrive in the afternoon two days before launch. Relax.

Atlantis plus10

I check in at the Press Center the day before launch, which is now set for Friday, May 19, 2000. The pre-launch briefing indicates weather conditions are perfect everywhere that matters. And, with three earlier attempts, everyone is confident there won't be any technical glitches to prevent a launch tomorrow.

I try to sleep Thursday afternoon and evening because the launch is set for 6:12am on Friday. I can't sleep...too excited, I guess. I'm up at 2 am and at the Press Center by 3. I watch the Astronauts get into their van for the trip to the launch pad. Everything looking great.

The countdown goes past minus nine minutes. Now I'm getting excited. Photographers start to get ready. I can't believe I'm going to see a launch. The sky behind the launch pad is beginning to get light. Sunrise is 15 minutes after launch.

Atlantis skyAt 6:11:10am, Friday, May 19, 2000, the Shuttle Atlantis is launched with seven crew members. Night turns to day as it lifts off the pad. I'm three miles away and the sound is deafening. Like a combination of non-stop fireworks and rumbling which shakes everything. It rises quickly. In a few seconds, it's in the sunshine and the contrail turns colors. After a few minutes, it's gone and all over. At the post-launch briefing, NASA reports the launch went flawlessly.

What I saw was fantastic, even thought it was over so soon. The launch came more than 6 months after I started planning.

While at the Cape, I talked to other reporters there for the launch. I have 25 years' experience as a reporter and recognized several familiar names. Print, television and radio media have been supplemented by Web producers., and other Web sites were represented. had 4 producers. In general, the broadcast and print media are treating Shuttle launches as routine.

But, I think they're still special.

Photos by Art Shotwell. Top photo by General Dynamics.