The space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled for liftoff Friday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, weather permitting. It will be NASA’s last shuttle mission.
When we lived in Orlando, we got to see a lot of launches, mostly from random parking lots around town.
Orlando is about 50 miles west of Kennedy, and from that distance, in broad daylight, the shuttle was like a very bright Roman candle with a thick tail of smoke that appeared over the horizon and arced across the sky. It dimmed after a few minutes then became a tiny point of light then disappeared in the heavens.
Once, though, we watched a night launch in New Smyrna Beach, about 30 miles up the coast from Kennedy.
We grabbed supper at this place on the beach and watched the countdown on the TV in the bar. T-minus 60 seconds, we walked to the beach and looked south and waited.
For a moment or two, it looked like sunrise, then the rocket appeared over the horizon. It was brighter than I imagined it would be, and I understood the tremendous power it takes to put a rocket in orbit.
The shuttle flew up the coast toward us. It was miles overhead and miles off the coast, but the flames were so bright I could easily read the numbers on my watch.
We could tell when the solid rocket boosters fell away because the light dimmed, but we could still see it heading north and up.
We lost sight of it after a few minutes, but we just stood there, staring after it, and I realized we weren’t alone. There were pockets of people all up and down the beach, but not a lot. This was probably in ’96 or ’97. Shuttle launches were routine by then. A lot of people who lived in Florida ignored space shuttles the same way they would an airplane overhead, but we still have airplanes.
Soon enough, there won’t be any more space shuttles.