Sunday, July 24, 2011

History in the making....NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis Launch

I don't even know where to begin with this post. I guess that's why it's taken me so long to write this.

It all started with a dream. A dream of a 13 year-old chunky Mexican girl who wanted to be an astronaut. For as long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated with NASA and the space program. As I grew up, my dream of one day going into space withered away but my love for the great beyond and those who strive to go there never wavered. I still go out at night and look for that fast moving star, aka the International Space Station.

When my nephew Caleb announced that he wanted to be an astronaut - to be the first man on Mars - I couldn't have been prouder or happier. This kid will live out my dream. His fascination and knowledge of space astounds me. So when we went to Houston to visit the Johnson Space Center and they talked about the retiring space program, he turned to me and said "I want to see a launch." I told him I did too. Every time we would see a launch on tv he would remind me that he wanted to see one in person. I told him I would do whatever I needed to do to make sure we got to see one. Then before I knew it, the time for the last shuttle launch was upon us. And I hadn't done anything to get us there. Yet.

Thus began my mission to get us to the last Space Shuttle launch. Ever. STS-135.

Getting the airline tickets and hotel was simple. Trying to get closer than 13 miles to see this historic event was another issue. I asked so many people who had previously seen launches their advice of the best place to see this take place. Aside from paying for tickets to see the launch on the Causeway, we were doomed to see the launch from miles and miles away.

Trying to make mine and Caleb's dream come true, I was determined to get those tickets. Getting them was harder than I thought. I was on the phone and internet practically the entire day the day tickets for causeway viewing of the last launch went on sale. I was flying to Milwaukee that day and was still trying to get those elusive tickets as I was waiting for the plane to load. Finally I got through right before I got on the plane and I wanted to cry when the salesperson told me they'd be waiting for me in Orlando. Originally I had hoped the whole family could go but with us going to Orlando in August, that just wasn't in the plans. With an expected one million people coming out to watch the launch, I knew everyone was nervous about just me and Caleb going. Including me!

So on Thursday, July 7, 2011 Caleb and I headed for the airport for our adventure. All week long the weather in Orlando was horrendous. NASA officials said they would make a decision early Friday morning on whether or not we were go for launch with the weather. When we were in the van going from our car to the airport, I saw on Twitter that lightning had struck so close to the shuttle that they were testing to make sure there was no damage to it. I was very close to canceling our trip. There were just too many variables that seemed to be working against us seeing the last launch.

Right before we left I told Caleb, "You know we don't have to do this. We can drive to Houston and watch the launch from the Johnson Space Center." He said "No, I still want to go!" I knew he was nervous. This was our first out-of-state trip by ourselves. And one of his dreams was about to come true. We knew there was a very good possibility that we wouldn't see the launch due to the weather but at least we'd get to see Atlantis on the launch pad.

Our flight there was smooth and thanks to Jet Blue we were entertained with tv the we whole way. Once we got out of the airport we knew we weren't in Texas anymore. To say we were unprepared for the humidity would be an understatement. We ate and got to our hotel by 9:00 pm and then tried to take a quick nap before we had to head to catch the buses that would take us to the NASA Causeway to see the launch. Caleb slept but I was too excited to sleep.

I didn't understand why we had to be at the rendezvous site at 2:30 am if the launch wasn't scheduled until 11:40 am. I soon found out just how many people would be at every stop we made. We set off at 1:00 am for Festival Bay to get our tickets and load the bus. In hindsight I shouldn't have taken the time to put rollers in my hair. With the humidity and drizzle I ended up putting my hair in a banana clip in less than an hour after we left the hotel.

We got there and the line to get our car into the parking lot was so long. Once we made it in, we got our tickets and loaded up on the bus. Having no idea what we'd find at the launch, we were prepared for the unknown. We had snacks, drinks, ponchos, electronics, cameras, tripod, chairs, you name it. Luckily we had a nice tour guide and driver and a nice couple across from us. I didn't even realize until we were back from our trip that Caleb was the only kid on our bus. I didn't see too many kids on the buses.

We finally took off for the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center and when we got there we went looking around at everything. The Rocket Garden was nice and Caleb enjoyed playing some of the simulator games. There were so many people there and we only had about 1.5 hours to see things before we had to be back on the bus.

With probably over 60 buses from our tour company alone, it took a while to get everyone ready to go. Our planned 5:30 am departure from KSC turned into 7:30 am. Then we were off for the Causeway. They told us to look for alligators along the way. I thought they were kidding but there was actually one in the water very close to us.

Wow! To see the Space Shuttle Atlantis on the launch pad was overwhelming. I didn't expect to get so emotional. I think I kept the tears at bay because I knew it would embarrass Caleb. By the time we parked we still had over three hours before liftoff. From the moment we got on the bus the rain was a non-issue; at least for us. We got off the bus and quickly found our spot and set up our chairs and camera equipment.

If you spoke to me before the trip, you know one of my main concerns was how we were going to go to the bathroom out in the middle of nowhere for over nine hours. I couldn't leave Caleb alone or leave all our stuff alone. As soon as I saw those porta-potties I told Caleb we were setting up right there. Problem solved. The crowd was huge but very orderly. They even had concessions so we had hamburgers at 9:00 am.

The wait for the launch didn't seem that long. Once the countdown got closer you could feel the excitement building. When they started the countdown I was a nervous mess. Then all of a sudden I heard the word you never want to hear at a time like this -- FAILURE. There was a problem with a camera or something but they fixed it and the countdown resumed.

I couldn't believe it was actually happening. We were going to witness the last Space Shuttle launch ever taking off.

My camera was set and so were we. I can't even begin to describe to you the feeling of what it is like to see the shuttle lift off. My mouth was open in awe the entire time the shuttle was lifting off. All I could say was "Oh my God!" over and over. It was unreal. Then to hear the sound carry towards us after liftoff -- there were so many emotions going through me.

First, I couldn't believe with all the weather problems throughout the week Mother Nature played nice and let the weather hold off long enough to get the launch in. Second, we actually made the trip from Texas and were lucky enough to get tickets to see it from six miles away. Third, just pure awe of watching something that you have seen only on television actually taking off and knowing that there are four people, astronauts, actually in there taking off with a huge ball of fire behind them. Going into space!

I can't say it enough. It was amazing. And life-changing. I still get chills thinking about it and just amazed at the pure genius of thousands of people who are part of the NASA team.

The next day we went back to the Kennedy Space Center because Caleb had to take part in the Space Shuttle Experience. What another amazing experience and makes me envy the ones who have been lucky enough to go up in that amazing piece of equipment.

And I must say the entire trip was totally worth it. My only regret is that we didn't do it sooner and that my sister didn't get to go with us. But I'm thankful she let me take Caleb to see it. Now I'm off to plan a trip to Great Wolf Lodge for the two kiddos who didn't get to go with us.

Even as I relive that glorious day, I always remember those who lost their lives in the Challenger and Columbia expeditions. We owe every astronaut and those who work/ed in the space program a debt of gratitude for their tremendous service and dedication.

Click to see all the pictures from the Space Shuttle Atlantis launch STS-135.

Space Shuttle Atlantis launch STS-135Alligator waiting for Space Shuttle Atlantis launch STS-135Caleb waiting for Space Shuttle Atlantis launch STS-135Causeway crowd at Space Shuttle Atlantis launch STS-135port-a-potties at Space Shuttle Atlantis launch STS-135Space Shuttle Atlantis launch STS-135
Space Shuttle Atlantis launch STS-135A dolphin waiting for the Space Shuttle Atlantis launch STS-135Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-135Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-135Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-135Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-135
Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-135Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-135Space Shuttle Atlantis launch STS-135Space Shuttle Atlantis launch STS-135Space Shuttle Atlantis launch STS-135Space Shuttle Atlantis launch STS-135
Space Shuttle Atlantis launch STS-135Space Shuttle Atlantis launch STS-135Space Shuttle Atlantis launch STS-135Space Shuttle Atlantis launch STS-135Space Shuttle Atlantis launch STS-135Space Shuttle Atlantis launch STS-135

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