Atlantis Space Shuttle Launch 2000: Up Close and Personal

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.

Mission facts:

Atlantis STS-101 Launch Information




Space Shuttle Encounters: A Giant Leap for the Geokind

I have to admit, I’ve had some pretty cool experiences as a field geologist in my earlier years, and one place that offered me many of these was Kennedy Space Center. I’m sure most of you are familiar with this space exploration facility located along the East coast of Florida, and the numerous space shuttle launches that provided lucky onlookers an awe-inspiring view before the program was discontinued. I was one of them, only I had an even closer “relationship,” with the space shuttles. It seemed like, no matter where I was working at the facility, I was in some way reminded of their existence.

My first encounter with a part of the shuttle occurred on my first field job along one of the facility’s busy roadways during the late 1990s. I was there to assist another field geologist to oversee the installation of several shallow wells for three days. During that time, we worked with a drilling contractor who was hired by our company to install the wells. I can remember pulling up to the site and being totally disappointed by the look of the buildings which were dull and lackluster, and the area which was industrial. It was not the flashy, picturesque facility I had envisioned it would be like the Visitor Center you see when you first drive in. Where were the futuristic flying cars and all the space-station shaped buildings with the hustle and bustle of scurrying scientists?

Anyway, I had little field experience at the time, so I primarily followed the guidance of the other field geologist on site with whom the drillers were arguing over a well design and costs when I first arrived. The project manager, who was back in the office, was making the decisions, but the field geologist was delivering the bad news, and the drillers argued with him about it for the entire day. I observed and said very little, until about 4 p.m., when I finally had enough, and blurted out of nowhere, “Look! You heard him! It ain’t gonna happen!” And thus the nickname, “No Shit, Sandie” was born, as well as some acceptance from my fellow geologists after this was repeated to them later.

Begrudgingly, the drillers continued their work over the next couple of days, and I, in my new, sparkly clean hard hat and boots obliged to try to help them as much as possible, even attempting to twist together polyvinyl chloride (PVC) casings, as if this was really helping. I have to say, the drillers were kind, despite my outburst and inexperience, and the rest of the field days were uneventful. That was, until Day 3.

We were at the last well site, and I was overseeing the concrete pad that was being constructed by one of the drillers. Suddenly, we both noticed that the entire area grew dead quiet. No cars, no people, no wind. Literally, no sound which was extremely unusual, being we were between two, red-light intersections. All I kept thinking was, “Where did everyone go?” We both scanned the area for signs of life, but we were the only ones as far as we could see. It was eerie.

Then, within a few minutes, the reason was revealed. There was no traffic, because a minor thing such as a SOLID ROCKET BOOSTER was being transported by what I presumed was a crawler along the roadway. That’s all — I mean, that happens every day, right?

We watched the enormous rocket booster crawl by inch by inch, until it eventually took a right hand turn at the light and disappeared. Once gone, the traffic returned almost instantaneously and all was back to normal. After I collected my jaw from the ground, the driller resumed work. That was when I noticed I had one boot in the wet cement. I quickly jumped back and there was a size 8 footprint as big as life. Rookie mistake. The driller just shook his head.

Guess the story now goes: The astronauts may have taken one giant leap for mankind, but I took one giant leap for the geokind. And my footprint is there to prove it!