Last week, I was attending a Healthcare IT conference in Orlando, Florida. By chance, on Thursday evening was the final launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery at Cape Canaveral. My colleague, Anthony, and I decided we’d make the drive to Titusville to see this launch. It would likely be the only time in my life that I’d ever see a shuttle launch as we approach the end of the Space Shuttle era.
The drive out to Titusville was surprisingly clear considering the historic event. However, when we reached Titusville, we were met with thousands of Shuttle enthusiasts parked all along side the road. We found a parking lot charging $10 right across from a waterfront park, and joined the throngs on the beach. We arrived about 20 minutes before the launch. There were people there that had been clearly waiting the entire day – families with picnics, playing games, listening to the radio and watching their portable TVs. There were people from all across the United States as was evidenced by RVs with license plates from various states.
The weather was beautiful and clear – probably in the high 60’s. The air was thick with anticipation as the time drew nearer and nearer. A man started playing a bagpipe. It reminded me a bit of a funeral, but perhaps it was more of a feeling of “farewell”. A man who seemed like he was somehow linked directly to mission control started screaming out updates to the crowd as we approached the final minutes. “2 Minutes!!’”
The crowd grew silent and watched the horizon. Some people pointed out where they thought the shuttle launch pad was, but it was difficult to make out. “1 Minute!”
An army of cameras were now at the ready with everyone attentive toward where they thought the shuttle launch pad was. After what seemed like much longer than a minute, the same voice yelled excited, “Main Engine ignition!” And there was a “whoop” from the crowd. I started my video on my phone and scanned the horizon. It ends up I was looking quite a ways off from where the the shuttle was actually launching. Prompted by the cheering and the catcalls from the crowd, I rescanned the horizon. The shuttle slowly rose from the horizon in a brightness that’s hard to describe. It reminded me of a welder’s torch slowly rising from the ground followed by a thick plume of white smoke.
What I did not expect was the sense of patriotism that welled up within me as I listened to the crescendo of cheering. We were watching together one of the culminating achievements of American ingenuity. There is hardly a better symbol of this than watching the space shuttle thundering into space. I wanted to break out into a patriotic song, and hoped that the President and every legislator could watch at least one Shuttle launch before they retired the manned space program. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all about cutting government spending. But, the shuttle program is definitely one of the few programs I will be sad to see go. It is a symbol of who we are. A plan to hitch rides with the Russians (and/or the Chinese) feel unsatisfying – definitely humbling. Hopefully, it is not a sign of things to come.
I took a video from my phone, but thought I’d post a much better video from Youtube.
Here’s a phone camera picture from where we watched the launch.