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The Launch of Atlantis, September 9th, 2006
It had long been our dream to see the launch of a shuttle at Cape Kennedy, but despite numerous visits to our beautiful villa in Orlando, it was not until September 2006 that we finally realised our dream.
At home in the UK in August, we watched the news closely, and when the launch was delayed due to Atlantis being struck by lightning on the launch pad, just before the launch, we wondered if we might be lucky. This, the 27th launch of the shuttle had been dogged by problems. Tropical Storm Ernesto was watched closely but thankfully it did not materialise as a hurricane.
So when we landed in Orlando, on September 3rd we were delighted to find that Atlantis had yet to take off. All went well until the Wednesday, when we planned to drive to the coast to see it take off. Unfortunately, due to technical difficulties the launch was yet again cancelled. The cut-off (ECO) sensors had been causing problems, and these were responsible for the decision to abort the launch.
Undaunted, we set off on the Friday and made it to our chosen spot in good time, but 40 minutes before launch it was called off, once again as the result of problems with the ECO sensors. We could imagine the disappointment of the six man crew, who had been waiting for the opportunity to travel to the Space Station for four years, and who were strapped into their seats for that final countdown. The launch window was due to close on September 7th so we knew there was not much time, but, unexpectedly, NASA extended this and so we set off yet again, on the Saturday.
This time we were up bright and early, picked up a friend on the way and set off with picnic packed and fingers firmly crossed. The drive was quick, with little traffic despite warnings that, as it was the weekend, we could be bumper to bumper, and maybe not even reach our destination. Our friend had looked on the internet and found what seemed to be an ideal place to watch the launch, so once again we arrived at the Space View Park at Titusville, and parked the car under a shady tree. We unloaded chairs, rugs, cool box with picnic and lots of iced drinks, cameras, tripod, and ourselves, and made our way down to the waterfront. We were even earlier than last time and the park was nearly empty, apart from a band of people who are responsible for the US Space Walk of Fame Foundation, and who raise money to complete this park which is dedicated to honouring the astronauts, as well as those who work behind the scenes, and who have, over the years helped America lead the world in space exploration. These volunteers had set up various stalls selling space memorabilia, posters, postcards, models, etc as well as food and drinks.
As we set up our chairs in a good vantage point we soon discovered that being so early had its drawbacks – in the shape of ravenous mosquitoes, which attacked us with glee. We were soon jumping up and down, slapping at them, and within seconds I had several huge and growing wheals on my arms from their bites. We decided we would go and get some insect repellent, and try to find somewhere to have breakfast. The friendly Americans directed us to a nearby café and said they would watch our chairs, cool box etc. As we walked up the road to the cafe the sun was warm on our backs. We realised we were quite hungry, and were delighted to find that the café served a delicious breakfast. It was eggs, corned beef hash and hash browns all round, with toast and hot tea or juice. Replete from our breakfast we strolled over to the CVC pharmacy and purchased several insect repellents, as well as some postcards of previous shuttle launches.
Back at the Park things were ‘hotting’ up. Numerous people, including many children, were now excitedly awaiting the countdown. One of the volunteers kept us up-to-date with the progress of the launch, as several people had radios tuned into Mission Control. The time passed quite quickly, and it was interesting to hear about the various ‘holds’ that take place. These stop the countdown at various stages, so that the ground crew can check all the systems. Suddenly we were just minutes away, and there was an electric atmosphere as, all over the park, people strained to see the shuttle, far across the water. There was a real feeling of excitement and pride, as we stood among so many Americans, waiting for the unknown. We also felt a tinge of anxiety, knowing how disastrously a previous launch had gone.
As we stood craning our necks, the long awaited launch suddenly happened. There was a ball of orange near the ground as Atlantis’s engines fired up, and the shuttle rose slowly, disappearing almost immediately into a huge bank of cumulus clouds. For a few seconds it could not be seen, then, suddenly, it was as if the sky had been torn in two as a wide white vapour trail showed the progress of Atlantis up into the sky. We stood and gazed in amazement, unable to look at anything else. The now tiny speck of Atlantis, preceded by a fluffy white and curling vapour trail continued to soar into the sky, and it was at this point we heard the reverberation of the launch. We could only imagine how the crew were feeling, exhilarated surely, fearful maybe, but each and every one performing those tasks which would send them rocketing into space. It was a breathtaking moment, and one in which we shared the huge pride of those Americans standing alongside us. A cheer went up as we breathed a sigh of relief and saw the vapour trail gradually disappear.
So there it was our first shuttle launch! Was it worth all the travelling, and the anticipation? Absolutely, and we can thoroughly recommend anyone doing the same. It can be frustrating if there are delays, but if you are lucky enough to be in Florida when a shuttle launch is imminent then don’t miss it. It is certainly something I will never forget.
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