Archive for Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Best day ever: Seeing shuttle launch

January 10, 2007

By far, the greatest day I ever had was ... (wait, my wife just walked into the room) ... ahem, my wedding day of course. It was so special, and my bride looked so radiant and lovely in her wedding gown. It was perfect, and I'll never forget it.

(Is she gone? OK, good. Whew, that was close!)

By far, the coolest day I ever had was Oct. 29, 1998. My then-9-year-old and I planned to travel to Florida to attend the NASA Space Camp there, and as luck would have it there was a space shuttle launch scheduled a couple of days prior to camp. Being the space and astronomy geek that I am, and desiring that my children become space geeks as well, we couldn't pass up the opportunity to witness such a historic event.

The Space Shuttle Discovery sat majestically on Launch Pad 39-B, across the Banana River from the NASA Causeway, the closest viewing site available to the public. The day was perfect: warm, clear and windless. Tickets for Causeway viewing were hard to come by, but I had corresponded with an employee of NASA and he generously gave me his. As we peered through our binoculars across the water, we could see vapor drifting lazily off the surface of the two solid rocket boosters and the large, orange external tank, the fuel tanks that would propel the shuttle into orbit to carry out its mission of launching a satellite and doing medical experiments. Making this mission even more noteworthy was that this was the return to space of pioneer astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth and now, 36 years later, the oldest person ever to fly in space.

After hours of waiting in rapt anticipation, the official countdown began. From the loud speakers positioned throughout the entire viewing area, the familiar 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 liftoff announcement was made. A huge plume of white smoke shot out from under the shuttle. It sat motionless for what seemed like an eternity, but was a couple of seconds at most. Then almost imperceptibly, Discovery crept into the air, slowly pirouetting in a half roll as it cleared the launch tower. Picking up speed, it rose silently into the sapphire Florida sky, tilting at an angle to maneuver it into proper orbit orientation. In less than eight minutes, it would be traveling at 17,000 mph and would be nearing its orbital altitude of three hundred miles.

Then it hit. A few seconds after liftoff, the sound and shock waves hit us like a sledgehammer. We were expecting the loud roar of the massive shuttle engines, which deliver as much horsepower as 39 locomotives. What we didn't expect, however,as the force of the shock wave thumping into our chests and almost knocking us back. To see and feel the power from this technological marvel made the experience that much more incredible.

Sadly, in less than three minutes after liftoff, Discovery was out of sight, having jettisoned its two solid rocket boosters before disappearing. As the reusable fuel tanks floated down beneath their parachutes, to be recovered from the Atlantic Ocean for reuse on a later shuttle, my daughter and I just stood there awestruck, huge cantaloupe grins spread across our faces. It was truly a great day -- the coolest day ever.

(Oh, and do me a favor: Please don't tell my wife about this article!)

If you ever get a chance, do yourself a favor and see a space shuttle launch. Even if you're not a space geek, you'll be amazed and impressed. One word of advice, however; plan other activities besides the shuttle launch -- Disney World, the beach, tour NASA, whatever -- because fickle weather or equipment malfunctions can cause delays or postponements of launches, and you want to have a backup plan so your vacation won't be a total waste.

For great space shuttle information on the Web, go to spaceflight.nasa.gov.

- Tonganoxie dentist Grant Ritchey can be reached via e-mail at TonganoxieDental@aol.com.

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