Launch of Atlantis May 20, 2010Posted by jayocallahan in Adventures.
I was telling Forged in the Stars, at a NASA Master’s Forum in Melbourne, Florida last Wednesday, May 12. The Forum is a chance for NASA scientists and engineers to pass on knowledge to younger NASA personnel. It was an international gathering and they were a wonderful audience for my story.
On Friday Forum members were bussed to Kennedy Space Center to watch the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis. It will be nice to see, interesting if not particularly exciting. On the two-hour trip I talked to a thirty-six year old aeronautical engineer, Ruediger Suess from Germany. Ruediger is fascinated with the dream of going into space. “I asked a man once,” Ruediger says, “to tell me who influenced his life most. The man thought a while then said, ‘myself when I was seven’.”
“Ah,” I say, Picasso said his task was to get back to imagining the way he did at five. The mind of the dreamer.
The traffic was very heavy because the shuttle missions are down to three today and two in the fall. Before leaving the bus we were told if the countdown gets to nine minutes it’s a go.
There’s a big crowd on the Indian River where we’re going to watch the launch. The sky is pale blue and high above while birds are circling. Effortlessly circling. It’s hot but a good breeze stirs the Indian River. There are hundreds and hundreds of people; some filling the stands, some in long lines for pretzels or hot dogs, some milling others picnicking. They are colorfully dressed. Pink hats, baseball caps, straw hats and white hats. Two hours drive by. The wind is strong. Is the wind so strong they won’t lift off?
Nine minutes to launch. The hot dog lines vanish. The stands are full. The grass area in front of the Indian River is crowded. That’s where I stand. Doubtless the astronauts’ families are worried now. At a time like this they’d remember the Challenger exploding after seventy-three seconds after launch.
Three minutes to go. Over the loud speaker: “Ladies and Gentlemen, would you please stand for The Star Spangled Banner.” We all stand and turn to the flag, which is blowing in the stiff wind. A woman sings the national anthem over the loud speaker, “Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave?” Star Spangled Banner. Is this not about reaching for the stars? I’m suddenly very glad to be here.
Sixty seconds to go on the big countdown clock. We are all looking across the river towards the launch tower, which seems close but is probably six miles away.
Ten seconds to go. Spontaneously we all count down aloud, “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.” White smoke billows on the right and left of the launch tower, and then there is an intense white light shaped like a candle. Now a streak of white light and I am so moved I cry out. The white is the most brilliant I’ve ever seen. The white fire sends the Atlantis shuttle up extremely fast. The thunderous sound grows so loud I cover my ears.
I am astonished at how deeply I’m moved. Shaken. Overcome. It is as if the light of the launch had gone through me, through all of us. As if that light has gone through time. Perhaps the molecules in our bodies remember when they were part of the fire of stars.
The white smoke curves. The shuttle is out of view. A final cheer. The astronauts are headed safely to the International Space Station. We in the crowd turn and
hurry to our buses and cars. We are no longer one. Ordinary life is back. It’s disorienting. For a moment we were welded into one.
On the ride back on the bus I talk to a young NASA employee named Katherine. She has a very responsible job but she tells me she’s leaving it in July.
“Why?” I ask.
“I’ve always dreamed of going to places I know nothing about. I’m going to teach science to seventh grade students in Korea. It’s time to act on my dream.”
I tell her of some of my dreams and say, “Do me a favor, Katherine. Some time write me a poem about the stars in Korea. Send it on a postcard. I’ll send a postcard back with a poem about the stars in Marshfield.”
Katherine gets out her notebook and writes down my name and address. “I want to go everywhere,” she says.
I laugh and say, “You want to go everywhere?”
She smiles and nods.
Everywhere includes the stars. Katherine wants to go to the stars but isn’t that what this is all about?