The mood was relaxed and the attentive crowd was watching the horizon
for a signal. They waited for the “go” or “no go” command from Mission
Control. Thousands of people had flocked to Titusville, Florida to
witness first-hand the lift off of NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery. The
signal was a “go” and the two solid rocket boosters ignited to propel
the ever-accelerating orbiter skyward.
I’m grateful to have had an opportunity to witness a shuttle launch
first-hand. It was on my birthday in May, 1999, I took the family to
Rotary’s Riverfront Park on Hwy. 1 in Titusville. I wanted my kids to
get to see a shuttle launch, but I think I was more excited than they
were. A mere 10 miles away, we could see the huge Vehicle Assembly
Building and the launch pad containing a fully-fueled rocket assembly
with the Discovery orbiter attached. The huge launch pad gantry soared
350-feet above the asphalt and the whole setup looked as if it was
only about a half-mile away.
This was a massive tailgate party. We had to arrive 3-hours early to
get a good spot. We had snacks, binoculars and time to kill. When
zero-hour approached we found someone nearby with a battery-powered TV
to let us know the countdown… 10, 9, 8. We watched in disbelief that
this could really be happening… 5, 4, 3. Out of the blue, the entire
thing lit up and flames rose on each side with billowing smoke higher
than the entire structure. Blinding light seemed to slowly lift the
huge rocket with its payload toward the sky. The air was silent and
the crowd was stunned. It was at least 30-seconds later when the
ear-deafening roar finally crossed the Indian River to our location.
After the delay the ground-shaking roar thundered across the water and
through the crowd.
It was an unforgettable moment to feel 7 million pounds of thrust hit
you in your chest as you see and hear this manmade miracle take
Today, those launch-events are a piece of history. The USA, once a
leader in space technology, no longer has the capability to send or
retrieve astronauts from the International Space Station (ISS). Now we
must depend upon Russian rockets to move personnel to and from the ISS
while private industry tries to catch up to where NASA once was.
The newly privatized race to space in this country is currently led by
a company called SpaceX. Their proper name is Space Exploration
Technology Corporation which was founded in 2002 by former PayPal
entrepreneur Elon Musk. The company has developed the Falcon 1 and
Falcon 9 rocket boosters, both of which are built with a goal of
becoming reusable launch vehicles. SpaceX is also developing the
Dragon spacecraft to be flown into orbit by the Falcon 9 launch
Privatized space missions have long been a goal in this country but
this month that dream may materialize in the first SpaceX mission to
the ISS. An unmanned Falcon 9 rocket equipped with the Dragon
spacecraft was planned to liftoff on May 3rd. The mission has already
been postponed several times, but the latest push back involves
getting upgraded NASA software which may be the last hurdle for a
launch to the space station before the end of this month.
The space station has been continuously manned since the first crew
boarded her on Nov. 2, 2000. She orbits the earth 15 or 16 times each
day at an average speed of 17,227 miles per hour and at a height of
about 220 miles above the earth's surface.
Soon the ISS will once again be visible over Cooke County. Have you
seen it? A visible fly-by literally dominates the night sky. Brighter
than planet Venus, the ISS crosses the sky in 5 minutes or less. A
neat way to predict when and where the ISS will be visible is
contained in a web site that lets you enter your current location by
city name (or latitude and longitude). Once that is done the site will
show you what time to look and in what direction to see the ISS fly
overhead. Go to www.heavens-above.com.