Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Space Shuttle Launch

My family was fortunate enough in 1958 to be able to build a beach cottage at Atlantic Beach, NC. It was a dream come true for my parents, who had always enjoyed “the beach” so much with their friends. It was right on the ocean and had no air-conditioning—not even window units! The cottage had wood floors, wood walls, and wood ceilings (our father loved heart-of-pine)—and it had old furniture from our recently deceased paternal grand-parents home in Raleigh. All the interior doors in our cottage were louvered to allow the mostly cool summer breezes to flow freely throughout the house—even the closets and bathrooms had louvered doors! When the breeze died, we all were miserably hot—consequently, I spent a lot of time outdoors—even at night. Times were different then. I was 10 years old when we moved into our cottage, my brother (Hi, Jay!) was 6.

Many-a-night with no such breeze, I would go out on our sundeck, lay down on the wooden benches and look up into the sky just trying to get cool—I would be too hot to slip between humidity-laden damp sheets and try to get to sleep—even then as a child! With nothing but hundreds of miles of darkness ahead of me and no town or street lights to get in the way, I would spot the Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Orion’s Belt, The Seven Sisters, and could even pick out the occasional satellite—moving ever so slowly. Sputnik, maybe, I never knew. Little did I realize “way back then” that I would have a life-long affinity for the stars and “outer space”. But every one of those summers I was building on it as a very lucky child. Today, I still marvel nightly at those familiar stars plus enjoy the meteor showers in August and December and Haley’s Comet and Hale-Bopp—when they make their infrequent appearances. And through my enthusiasm (I’d like to think), even Louis early on came to appreciate the heavens—that’s one of the chief reasons we named our boat “Bella Luna”—beautiful moon. We both love star gazing!

I have always envied every one of the astronauts who have been privileged enough to have walked on the moon—I can’t imagine what they must feel these days looking up into the sky, seeing the moon, and telling their children/grandchildren, “I have walked up there!” How lucky those few people are. And in a salute to Jack Nicholson (one of my all time favorite actors ever), I have a “Bucket List” of my own. Among the top twenty on the list is that I have always wanted to be able to see a space shuttle launch or any launch, for that matter. And we realized about 10 days ago we just might be able to make that wish come true—barring any unscheduled delays on NASA’s part, we should be right in the area for launching. I don't know the reason, but we've heard that there will not be many more of these launches (maybe 8?), so if we're going to get to see one, we don't need to put it off much longer! We prayed that there would be no clouds or fog at our opportunistic time either!!

And so off we went this past Sunday morning, leaving Ft. Pierce. We were headed north about 30 miles towards Melbourne to hopefully find a good anchorage with an unobstructed view of the northerly sky—a space shuttle launch was scheduled for 7:43 pm that night. Robert on “C-Life” led us to a great spot sheltered from a hard blowing wind and we anchored—boy, is he a great leader—we were in a fantastic spot! We were ready by 4pm with new batteries in our cameras and videos charging—hoping so much that there wouldn’t be any delays on the launch, as so frequently happens. We had this one opportunity—one night to be in a close area for viewing.

We all were on “C-Life” and we had their TV on—the local stations faithfully cover each launch here as NASA is the largest employer for miles around the Cape Canaveral area. If there were to be a delay, we would immediately hear about it. But luck was with us—no delay. The countdown began—we all held our breaths and waited. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, “Liftoff, we have Liftoff!”, we heard from the TV. We all were hanging outside the sundeck’s curtains looking for the shuttle. Then, in an instant, a huge fireball appeared just over the treetops—and it kept climbing. Eureka—this was it!! “I can’t believe what I’m seeing and we are so close to it”, I kept yelling! Then we saw a smoke trail, the “fireball” got smaller, and with such clarity, we could see the actual shuttle sitting on the rocket boosters rotating. Unbelievable! And then within just a few seconds, the sound hit us (from 25 miles away we estimated) — we felt this wave of immense pressure going right through us. We were seeing it, hearing it, and feeling it—all the time trying to capture it on film and video. We saw the boosters separate and fall back to earth (really the ocean) and then so quickly, Discovery was now in orbit and just a pin-head size bright dot in the sky. The show was over—but boy, was it ever a good show—the best I’ve ever seen. NASA was pleased, the Creeches and Wades were pleased and so “over the moon”, and to say it was a thrilling experience would truly be inadequate.

We’re almost home now—we have about six weeks left of our year long trip taking us over 7000 miles. We have a sign in our boat that reads, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away”. Sunday night, March 15th, was definitely one of them—WOW. Thank you, NASA. TYJ.

1 comment:

Jay Stockard said...

Great post "D"! It is a sight that truly leaves you breathless, and I'm so glad y'all got to relish it! As hot as the summer nights were at the beach when the tide changed and the wind died, I also remember that the house had no heat, and the dash to the covers when leaving the hearth, hoping that the coal filled bed warmer had broken the chill enough to let us get warm under the covers. Those sights of the night sky from our deck were spectacular, and led me to take astronomy in college and a love of the sky that continues today! Take care, God Bless, and I look forward to seeing you soon!

"Brother" Jay