After six amazing years serving this site as a writer, reporter and editor, I'm moving on. With my last proper post, I'd like to tell you about the opportunity DVICE provided me that meant the most. Namely, I got to watch a space shuttle launch.
I'm centered in the picture above, in the white shirt. Behind is the plume left by Atlantis, some 10 minutes after it lifted off. It is an experience I'll never forget, and one that I return to often.
"Don't Bring A Camera"
When I told former DVICE-o-naut, now Mashable's Charlie White that I was going to see a space shuttle launch, his immediate advice was to not bring my camera. Absolute sacrilege for a reporter, but he had a reason: with nearly one million souls on the ground watching, quite a large number of them were going to have a better camera than mine. When the shuttle launched, he reasoned, it'd be a shame to watch it through a tiny viewfinder.
I did bring a camera, of course. But, Charlie's words echoing in my head, I left it in my lap. Best advice ever.
Then again, "bring sunglasses" would have been a close second: when Atlantis finally roared, the glare from its solid rocket boosters stung as if I'd looked right at the sun. It caught myself and a lot of others around me off guard; Atlantis enjoyed a flawless launch, but up until the spacecraft started rising away from the horizon at a steady clip, no one was sure it'd go. A lengthy hold at T-31 seconds and a swampy, overcast Florida morning kept us guessing.
By the time of the hold it was nearly noon and I, like my colleagues, had been up since 2 A.M. following NASA's updates and hoping against the announcement of a delay. It didn't happen while I was getting ready in my hotel room, and the feared postponement never came while waiting in six hours of gridlocked traffic to reach the Kennedy Space Center. There, I wandered the absolutely packed lawn at the Launch Complex 39 Press Site, some three miles from where Atlantis sat atop Pad A.
From the lawn, we could only see the nose of Atlantis' orange External Tank topping a row of distant trees. The anticipation couldn't be greater, and yet there wasn't a lot to look at. All I could do was sit in some rickety bleachers, sweat in the heat, and listen to the buzz of the crowd while waiting for NASA's coundown clock to resume. It had been counting down steadily all morning, only to freeze at half a minute.
I felt far from the action and, looking up at the overcast sky, wondered how much I'd even get to see. The answer? I'd get to see — and feel — plenty.
What A Firework Must Feel Like
The clock resumed without fanfare. For most of the countdown, nothing happened. Everyone around me was staring at that orange nose peeking over the trees — we had all agreed not to stand up and block anyone else's vision in the bleachers, no matter how excited we got. As the clock neared zero, smoke billowed out, visible over the treeline. Then Atlantis rose smoothly and effortlessly; the space shuttle climbing faster than I imagined it would.
The white-hot flame of the boosters hurt my eyes even while I was focusing on the shuttle itself, but I couldn't look away. All at once the force of the liftoff pushed against me, the air heated, and I could hear popping all around me. I felt like I'd been dropped into a bag of popcorn and then tossed into the microwave; or that I was in the middle of a bunch of fireworks going off. Even though the shuttle was now high in the sky and streaking toward the heavy cloud cover, its roar reached us loud and clear on the ground. The violent popping devolved into forceful claps, but the force of the launch was still very much with us. (You can get a taste of the shredding intensity of the sound in this video.)
Then Atlantis was gone and all that was left was a plume. By the time the picture at the top of this post was taken, Atlantis had completed both stages of its ascent and was easing into orbit.
I write a lot about space, and read even more. None of what I've written or read has come close to communicating what that single launch did. As an adult, it remains the single greatest thing I've ever seen; the marvel of engineering that makes up NASA's Space Transportation System was clear in every detail of the orbiter's ascent. As a kid, I would have walked away from that lawn absolutely decided that I'd grow up to be an astronaut.
Onward And Upward
On behalf of myself and the DVICE writers, thank you for reading, and for your support. Whether you're new to the site or have been reading since our start, thank you. Though I'm stepping down as editor, I remain a DVICE reader, and I couldn't be more excited for that.
Thanks for reading!