The Space Shuttle, The End of An American Era
First you see it. Then you hear it. And, then you feel it. The sight is heart pumping. The sound is ear deafening. The shock waves are earth shaking.
When I was five, I had a dream. I wanted to fly in a rocket ship. An Alan Shepard, John Glenn, or Gordon Cooper is whom I wanted to be. For nearly a half century I longed to see a rocket lift off from Cape Kennedy. On Friday, May 14, at 2:20:09 p.m., my dream came true. I was there. I saw the billowing orange and white smoke. I saw the blinding fire. I heard the distant rumble and then the crackling roar. Tweeters tweeted. Cameras clicked. Crowds cheered.
After securing my press credentials from a 1960s style office from a sweet lady named Mrs. Woodard, whose husband came from of all places, Eastman, Georgia, I toured the area on the day before the launch.
I saw the areas where in the old days they launched the Mercury and Gemini missions. I remembered my friend Bert Thigpen, who lives on the Old Savannah Road. As a young man, Bert worked on radar systems up and down the East Coast from New York to Cape Canaveral, as they called it back in the early 1960s. Bert was invited by NASA officials to come into the bunkers and watch some of the events. He fondly remembered Shorty Powers, who loved the last minute holds. He's the guy who coined the phrase, "a-ok." Thigpen remembered the time he was invited to ascend the gantry tower for one of the Gemini space missions. "I was amazed at how thin the aluminum door of the capsule was. The seats were smaller than a pickup truck. They invited me to climb in and see the inside, but I was scared to close the door," Bert remembered. My how things have changed. There was a good ol' country boy from Laurens County climbing in a space capsule as if were a friend's new car.
They took us to get a close up view of the shuttle. It didn’t seem to matter that it was only a mile away. I wanted to spend the night there to get the ultimate shot of the launch. But, after surviving a heart attack to save pieces of the old Dublin High School, I wasn’t about to get incinerated if something went terribly wrong. Besides, they wouldn’t let anywhere, except the biggest shots, get anywhere near the pad during liftoff.
I saw the real Apollo 13 capsule, one I was afraid I jinxed when I saw it on the same pad some 40 years before. Then, I touched the moon. Not really, but a small finger worn triangular piece NASA put out for the tourists to touch the bounty of their investment in the space program. I said a prayer for the astronauts of Apollo 1, who were burned on the launch pad in a pre-flight test and the thrills we all had way back in the summer of ’69.
The nice lady back at the badging office told me to get there by 7:30. I did. Then it was hurry up and wait. The sun was blazing, but there was a nice breeze. So for the next five hours, I looked around me. Camera crews were getting ready. There were several shuttle astronauts walking around in their blue jump suits. My son Scotty tells me journalists shouldn't be fans, so I didn't ask them for an autograph.
For most of the morning, I took advantage of the opportunity to watch a few of the300 birds on Merritt Island, a National Wildlife Refuge. I watched three ospreys flying back and forth to their nest, constructed of twigs and sticks on top of a NASA sign. I spotted one of them flying in with a prized fish. He had already nibbled off the head before he got back to the nest. The AP guy got a photo of three of the ospreys in the nest. But, I got a prize picture of the eagle-like bird gliding into his tailgating perch with a pre-launch meal.
People kept walking around. Most of the media were enjoying just being there, taking pictures of themselves with NASA objects in the background. Speaking of objects in the back ground, the most dominating feature of the complex is the Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB. It is the world’s fourth largest building in volume and you could cram four Empire State Buildings inside of it and still have room to walk around in.
As I looked around on the spot where the largest gathering of journalists in the history of the world came together on July 16, 1969 to chronicle the launch of Apollo 11, I thought of the late Walter Cronkite. I thought of Dr. Robert Shurney, a Dublin native who taught many of the early astronauts how to live in weightlessness. Shurney, considered one of the greatest African-American physicists at NASA, designed lunar rover's tires in addition to designing systems to allow the astronauts to eat easier and even go to the bathroom in the zero gravity of space in the Apollo, Skylab and Shuttle missions.
I thought of George English, who lived at the corner of Woodrow and North Elm Streets. English served as a Deputy Director of the Kennedy Space Center in the 1970s during the transition from the moon going Apollo and earth orbiting Shuttle missions.
When the clock struck T-1:20:00, I made my way down to the edge of the river. I noticed the manatee playing in the water and the shore birds skimming the surface for a meal. I heard a loud crash in the water near my bank side seat. Only later did I learn that it was probably a gator which infest the area.
A young graduate student stood next to me. She was busy on her cell phone reading the last minute messages of the flight controllers. Seemed there was a constraint to a launch, not a soft one, but a hard one, which meant I might have come back and do it all over again a month later. But then she found out it was only a missing camera bearing. We were go for launch. At T-0:09:00, the tweeters came running out of their air-conditioned tent like kids on the last day of school.
10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1, lift off. The Space Shuttle Atlantis was on her final voyage. Only two more flights are scheduled. There is an urban legend that when the shuttle goes up, the alligators come out of the water. One did. So, I got up and left. After 49 years of waiting to get there, it was all over in two minutes.
After a seven-hour ride back to Dublin, I got in my bed and went to sleep, hoping that I just might dream that it was me up there circling the Earth.