It was dark at 5 a.m. when I arrived at the guard shack with my coworker, Kerry Kates and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) badge on March 1, 2002. I had never been to Kennedy Space Center near Titusville, Florida that early before and was somewhat surprised by the long line of vehicles waiting for clearance. I shouldn’t have been surprised though. A NASA shuttle launch always drew in crowds.
We knew our way around the facility well, since Kerry and I had been working there for weeks on numerous geology-related field events. Since we had special clearance, we were able to view the launch near the press stands which is the closest spot possible. This was the first time I would see a shuttle launch and digital countdown clock in person. As we drove up to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), the huge American flag painted on its face seemed larger than life in the lighting. Across the street, bleachers were set up in front of the clock and numerous news reporters and staff were standing about with cameras aimed at the eastern sky. The launch pads were located near the coast of the Atlantic and the salty smell of the coastline permeated through the air.
The shuttle on the launch pad was the Atlantis and held one Russian and six American astronauts. The mission (STS-101) was to bring supplies and make repairs to the International Space Station under Commander James D. Halsell, Jr. This would be the first time the shuttle was launched with a glass cockpit.
As the clock wound down through the last few minutes, I could hear an engine sound in the distance and the audience grew quiet. The noise became louder and the excitement from the anticipation welled up with every ticking second. I could feel a sort of energy take over, and I glanced over to Kerry, as if to say this would always be a special memory in our lives.
At 6:11 a.m., I couldn’t see the shuttle at first but the noise became louder and louder until eventually I started wondering if it was a good idea to be standing so close after all. Then, I was overcome by unexpected booming waves of force that came in a series of pulses strong enough to make me back up a few steps, feeling unsure of it all, until I saw the streak of a rising shuttle against a beautiful sunrise backdrop that made me pause. How incredible it was to witness such a miracle of engineering and astronaut bravery. Within a few minutes, the rocket boosters dropped off and the shuttle was out of sight. All that was left behind were clouds of gas reflecting brilliant blues, purples and yellows from the morning sun.
Never will I forget the power of that awe-inspiring morning. Little did I know that this mission could have had the same fate as the Columbia disaster in 2003. When Atlantis re-entered into the Earth’s atmosphere 10 days later, a damaged tile seam caused a breach in the left wing and allowed superheated gas to enter. Luckily, the gas did not penetrate deep enough to cause the disintegration of the shuttle.