I’ve been taking trips down memory lane — I don’t know why exactly. But planning new trips (which I do, it seems, every winter as the walls start closing in) somehow just naturally calls to mind previous adventures.
STS 133. The 133rd flight of a U.S. space shuttle. The last voyage of Discovery. The 35th mission to the International Space Station.
They called it an “Express.” As if others made interim stops! That makes me smile.
The backstory . . .
For as long as I can remember, I have looked up at the sky and dreamed of traveling into space. Spacecraft and rocket launches never fail to mesmerize and excite.
In February 2009, we were traveling south on Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway; we had hoped to be near enough to Cape Canaveral to witness a shuttle launch, but there were weather delays. Without a firm target date, we made no firm plans.
In early March, though, somewhere near Titusville, Florida, we witnessed the liftoff of a Jupiter 2 rocket, “at 2248 from Pad 17 Bravo,” according to the U.S. Coast Guard in a security zone broadcast alert to boaters that evening. We saw the flash on the horizon, bright and perfect, as we lay at anchor.
In mid-March of that year, we were docked at Port Lucaya in the Bahamas. After weeks of continuing delays, STS 119, a flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery, was finally scheduled for launch at 7:43 p.m. the evening of March 15. From 60 or so miles away, we saw the light in the night sky that signaled another perfect launch. A cheer went up from the mostly American crowd, from vessel decks throughout the marina, and we watched until the glowing cloud of light dissipated.
The real meaning of “earth-shaking”
Not quite two years later, the launch was scheduled for 4:50 p.m. Thursday, February 24, 2011. There was a 10-minute window; official NASA records put liftoff at 4:53:24. That’s pretty close to on time.
There were other boats all around; all gathered at a perfect vantage point to witness one of the last shuttle launches of the American space program. It felt like a block party. The day was calm and beautiful, and we had a “front-row seat” in a small cove a few miles east of Cape Canaveral with a clear view of Merritt Island and the Cape just beyond. We could see the busloads of tourists heading for viewing sites. The air of anticipation was palpable. Radios blasted the latest news as the minutes ticked down.
I remember the anticipation. I remember seeing the smoke; then hearing the sound; then FEELING the blast; in that order. Yes, even though we were cushioned by the water, we felt the earth tremble beneath us.
And then the shiny, slender white rocket rose steadily into the upside down bowl of blue sky to begin its journey into space.
Raw power of that sort is hard to describe. Words don’t do it justice.
A moment in time
I remember the cheers. No one dared speak. Even breathing was difficult. All eyes, trained on binoculars or straining to focus through a camera lens, followed the arcing path over the Atlantic until the rockets and the shuttle were just a pinpoint with a trail of white that drifted back towards the home planet. It was gone in only minutes, but witnessing that launch was an experience not easily forgotten.
History was made that day. Discovery’s story was completed 12 days later, when it returned to Earth at Kennedy Space Center just before noon on March 9. Six men were on board that mission.
Between 1984 and 2011, Discovery flew a total of 39 missions, carried 252 crew members into space, launched the Hubble Telescope and, finally, was retired to the Smithsonian Institution where the public can view it. Discovery was the third of five shuttles built and the first to leave active service. Read more about Discovery’s last mission.
Space Shuttle Endeavor’s final launch was May 16, and Atlantis flew July 8 under the NASA designation STS 135, ending America’s shuttle program after 30 years.
The saga continues
I still look up at the sky. I still dream of traveling into space, although I know that, for me, it is only a dream. But for others . . . . Let us not forget that the missions continue. The International Space Station orbits our Earth approximately every 90 minutes. You can look up and see it; or you can view your planet as the astronauts see it, in real time.
Note: My husband and I were liveaboard boaters at the time, traveling eastern U.S. waters on an almost three-year epic journey that took us from Florida north to Maine and the Canadian Maritimes, saw us in the Chesapeake and on the Potomac, in the Carolinas and Florida and the Bahamas, ending our journey finally in Mobile, Alabama, on the Gulf Coast. Our adventures on Gypsy Spirit, our 44-foot aft-cabin power vessel, were the stuff of dreams; we occasionally browse our log books to rekindle fond memories of those times.