Friday, 8 July 2011

It's a beautiful day

Thirty years and 135 missions after its debut, NASA got down to the business of launching a Space Shuttle for the final time this morning.

It was a privilege to be amongst the 1,350 media representatives from around the world who had descended en masse - many to witness a launch for the first time - for this history-making occasion.

My day started with a 4.30 am wake up call, which was at exactly the same time the four astronauts were woken in their quarters at KSC for breakfast and to begin their preparations.

It was still dark and the air heavy and humid as I started the 35 minute drive from downtown Cocoa Beach towards the space centre.

Traffic was already heavy and vehicles of all shapes and sizes were beginning to congregate on the roadsides to reserve distant views across the Banana River to the launch site for their bleary-eyed occupants. With up to a million visitors expected, many had ‘camped’ overnight to reserve their spot.

As well as the normal security gate a second advance checkpoint had been instigated on the approach to the KSC perimeter and by 6 am cars were backing up in both lanes, cop cars and trucks parked alongside adding to a sense of occasion with their blue flashing lights cutting through the dark.

There had already been a few spits of rain as the first light of dawn began appearing through a crack in the dark overnight clouds - and with it came a glimmer of hope that it might just clear enough in a few hours’ time to get Atlantis off the pad.

For much of the week, and particularly with yesterday’s torrential rain and thunderstorms, a launch had been thought highly unlikely today with only a 30 percent chance of the weather being acceptable.

I arrived at the press site in the nick of time for another security check, this time with an army trained sniffer dog, as four NASA coaches lined up to take a elite group of mainly photographers to witness the traditional crew walkout.

We had less than an hour to wait behind a barrier for the astronauts, clad in their distinctive orange flight suits, to make their brief appearance. Many of the regular photographers position small step ladders to get an elevated view of the heads of others.

The photographers are joined by other guests and onlookers as the time for walkout draws nearer and the sense of excitement and anticipation is heightened when a military helicopter begins circling overhead.

Word comes that the astronauts are in the elevator and then a huge cheer goes up as the four - Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim appear from behind the silver Astrobus. They wave and pose before climbing onboard for the 15 minute journey to Pad 39A.

The crowd begins to disperse and I glimpse a familiar face - Nichelle Nichols, known to millions around the world as ‘Uhura’, the communications officer on Enterprise in the original Star Trek series.

With three hours to go before launch we head back to the press site. Overhead the cloud ceiling seems a little higher than before and some small breaks have appeared here and there.

Despite the previous day’s dire predictions maybe it had been a good call to proceed with the overnight tanking of Atlantis. The Florida weather can be as fickle as anywhere.

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