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End of an Era: The Shuttle’s Final Night Launch

Tom PattonNo lesser philosopher than John “Hannibal” Smith on “The A-Team” (am I dating myself?) said “I love it when a plan comes together.” And so it was with the launch of STS-128 a minute before midnight Friday.

You may recall my stories about traveling down to the vicinity of Cape Canaveral twice, with a third false start, for the last shuttle mission.

The trips weren’t total busts, particularly because of the chance to go fishing with my cousin down off Cocoa Beach. But for shuttle launches. Nada. I don’t know if NASA set a record with six scrubs for STS-127, but I’m sure it was close.

Previous disappointments notwithstanding, we jumped in the car about 9:00 Friday evening and headed south, hoping to find a vantage point for the launch that was at least closer than Neptune Beach.

We wound up parked at the boat ramp just inside the main gate at Canaveral National Seashore, and it was a quick walk up and over the dune (yes, on the overbridge) to the ocean.

shuttle2As had happened at least once before, weather threatened Friday night’s launch. A storm well offshore provided some pre-launch entertainment for those of us gathered on the beach about a half hour before launch time. There is a certain camaraderie among those who will drive to the beach and brave the sand fleas and no-see-ums for an opportunity to feel just a tiny bit closer to space. I’m fortunate enough to have just one degree of separation from someone who has actually flown, and I mean sitting up front, the shuttle. Ken Bowersox, who was the pilot on STS-50 in 1992 and spacecraft commander for STS-61 in 1993 was just two years ahead of me in high school in Bedford, Indiana. And though he probably wouldn’t know me if he tripped over me, at least we’re acquainted and he’d apologize if he actually DID trip over me, but I digress. So we stood on the beach, iPhones displaying the countdown in real time on the NASA website, waiting for the final minutes, then seconds, to tick away.

And at exactly a minute before midnight, the sky lit up like day. A sunrise in the south, rather than the east where you would expect to see it from our vantage point on the beach.

For all the times that America has launched men and women into space, it is still such a thrill to see this happen, and the people on the beach cheered. No other nation on earth has been able to do what we have as consistently and safely. Send people off the planet, and bring them safely home. Russian readers might disagree, but it’s a statement I’m confident in making.

shuttle1The bright orange glow lasted only a few moments, as Discovery arced north seemingly right over our heads, though we knew she was miles downrange, before turning east, almost like she was vectoring around the thunderstorm, then vanishing in a pinpoint of light. We could clearly see the solid rocket booster separation with the naked eye, and it took almost that long before the minutes-long rumble of thunder started to roll over the beach. Even from our vantage point miles north of the cape, that low, almost sub-audible sound came wave after wave, first drowning out and then finally dissipating and merging with the crash of the waves just feet from where we stood. It takes 8.5 minutes for the shuttle to reach orbit, and just that quickly, it was done.

shuttle3All that was left was to get back in the car and head north, after a stop at Denny’s for a quick bite and coffee.

Unless something drastic happens and the Obama administration manages to not kill the Shuttle program, or a series of scrubs forces another night launch, Friday night was the last night shuttle launch.


There is one scheduled for September 15th with a 2000-2100 launch window, but in Florida in September, that’s still twilight. It will still be impressive, but the thrill of turning night into day may be done for the foreseeable future. NASA was supposed to test an Ares rocket booster Thursday, but a problem forced a delay. Ares is supposed to be the rocket that will start men on their journey back to the moon, or beyond, but the entire manned space program is now threatened with extinction. The Manned Space Flight Commission concluded that, given the NASA budget proposed by the Obama administration, sending people into orbit post-shuttle is just not feasible, and we’ll be relying on the Russians to take crews to ISS.

They can spend billions on Cash for Clunkers, or now Cash for Appliances, but for the greatest research and development program ever devised, accounting for tens of thousands of high-paying technical jobs with ripple effects that can be felt throughout the economy … not so much.

shuttle4No one will ever stand on a car lot and cheer as someone drives away in a car for which the government subsidized the manufacture and then subsidized the purchase.

But people will stand on a beach, at midnight, and cheer one of our nation's greatest accomplishments. I’m so privileged to live where I can get in my (non-subsidized) car, drive two hours, and witness that accomplishment, which is at the same time awe-inspiring and somehow routine, and be close enough to feel a tiny fraction of the power needed to boost the spacecraft to orbit. Every American should have the opportunity to see and feel what I saw and felt last night.

Maybe then we wouldn’t be in such danger of losing it.

2 Responses »

  1. Kudos for your trip and the feelings. I drove down in '69 for the moon landing shot. Watched the shuttle from Southside JAX Fri. Sometimes it's a good and proud feeling to live in the USA!

  2. THE FINAL FRONTIER.. I built Estes Rockets back in the 60's and 70's to send mice up 100 yards into the air. When the two and three stage home-made estes rockets were manufactured we thought there could never be another advancement in technology. All of a sudden the Shuttle program was announced, then tested and finally launched successfully. My wife and I drove to Atlanta to see the first shuttle transported on the back of a 747 jet. Who could believe such a thing possible?

    Now, 30 years later (who could imagine), it's time to put this toy away. My adult life has been the shuttle program. My entire life has been the space program.

    When you consider that Orville and Wilbur flew the first time December 1903, in 100 years we've accomplished something special.

    Strap in for the ride of your life: 2010 - ???? WE'RE GOING BACK !

    GO U.S.A. !