I am not a poet, although at times like these I wish I were. Nor am I a professional writer. I write this blog and from time to time I get a complement or two. Most of those come from my mom. I am forgetful. For instance, last night I took my daughter down to the beach to watch the launch of STS-119. I forgot to bring my camera and my daughter forgot to bring her glasses. Which, to be honest, was somewhat my fault. With all the yelling to hurry up and get out of the house and the other general annoying racket I make when I'm trying to do something that I am more excited to do then the rest of my family, sometime I force the forgetfulness. But we made it on time and only had to wait a few minutes until the launch would occur. If it were to occur. As of today's launch, STS-119 had already been cancelled two times and it's mission delayed over a month. So there was a bit of uncertainty hanging in the air.
But I've gotten ahead of my self. You might ask what is STS-119? To make it easy, most of us knew where we were when we first heard the fate of STS-51. That would be the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. I still remember vividly the bright white plumes of rocket smoke trailing the Challenger into a crystal blue sky and the horrible aftermath. Trying to reconcile the beauty of the launch with the tragedy that just befell the Country was difficult. Of course we have had a more recent disaster, that of STS-107, the Columbia. And it is the memory of Columbia and the highly cautious culture that emerged directly thereafter that can be attributed to the delays in the launch of STS-119 this month. In fairness, this culture has emerged not just for the protection of the astronauts, the brave men and women who ride the rocket know the risks, but it is for the protection of the manned space program in general. Americans do not like to see Americans die. Too many accidents and we might as well kiss our space program goodbye. So in preparing for STS-119 caution and certainty were the buzzwords.
Just a little on STS-119. Discovery is the name of the orbiter being used on this mission. It has a crew of seven. A commander, a pilot, and five mission specialists. It's destination is the International Space Station or ISS. They are delivering some parts for the ISS -- a few trusses, some batteries, and some replacement solar panels. That sounds like it could be a run to Home Depot, except with a $500 million dollar delivery charge. But it's worth it, because not only will the crew deliver the parts, they will install them at no additional charge. Since they would have nothing to do in orbit anyway, other then stare out the window until their return, they agreed to install the upgrades. So, over and above their delivery mission, what's so special about STS-119? It turns out that our Country is only planning 10 more space shuttle launches. With the end of STS-119's mission in about 13 days, we will have only 9 more to go. Considering I grew up with the space shuttle, learning about it and writing reports in grade school and then following those early missions as a high school student (STS-1 took place in April 1981), it's kind of sad that after thirty years it's all coming to an end. But after the shuttle program is retired we are off to the moon, so that is perhaps, even more exciting. And then to Mars.
So getting back to the launch, there was a bit of uncertainty hanging in the air, but we wouldn't have to wait long to know if there would be a delay, plus, the beach was crowded with space enthusiasts wanting to cheer the launch on as well, so we were not waiting alone. I checked the clock on my cell phone, the launch was set for 7:43 and it was 7:41. Two minutes to go, not sufficient time to run back to the car to retrieve my daughter's glasses. It seemed to me that she forgot her glasses for the last launch as well, so I asked her. She had. Oh well, that was probably my fault then too. No glasses and no camera, well perhaps I will just try to take a picture in my mind, and perhaps I can write about it when I get home, if this launch inspires me.
Those were my thoughts as we all waited and stared north towards the haze covered point of Cape Canaveral. The Discovery however, sits atop its pile of solid rocket propellant and liquid oxygen at a launch pad on Kennedy Space Center, which is a few miles further north of the Cape. So from our vantage point, along with the curvature of the earth, we cannot actually see the launch pad directly. It takes a few seconds directly after ignition, to see what's creating the glow on the horizon. But if you can picture looking north down a long white beach with true turquoise waves breaking all the way up the coast, almost 20 miles to the Cape, and with an evening clear enough to see that far in the twilight, in fact sunset had actually occurred at 7:31. You could still see the white of the beach and the blue of the sky. At a few seconds past 7:43 pm the glow in the distance began. There was no sound, at least not from the launch, as soon as the bright orange ball of fire appeared slowly rising above the horizon a cheer from all along the beach erupted. Not the cheer of thousands but the cheer of hundreds, although further muffled by the strong warm breeze blowing from the surf.
As the orange ball slowly rises above the horizon at this distant point it begins to paint the surrounding haze in a glow of orange, pink, and red. Then a small ball of fire breaks above the haze and appears to be riding on top of a clearly visible column of smoke. This smoke trailing from the trust generated by its solid rocket boosters. As the column of smoke stretches higher and higher into the sky it begins to change color. First it is grey in the haze but above the haze it begins to turn a bright orange, almost the color of the blazing ball of fire itself. But then as the ball of flame rises steadily higher it leaves it's orange color impregnated on the column of smoke. As the column of smoke gets longer and longer it begins to change color again as it begins an easterly arch into the heavens. First the column of billowy smoke is orange and then it is red and then it is pink. Finally the column turns bright white, a pure white as bright as the whitest cloud on a summer's day against a crystal blue sky. It is the immediatly identifiable white plume against a blue sky of a space shuttle launch, it could be nothing else. It was not apparent until this very point that the palette of colors that were we seeing, was not man made. The deep colors were coming from the heavenly made light of a Florida sunset being filtered through the lower atmosphere and painting the skyward reaching pure white canvas of a man-made rocket exhaust plume. As the billowy tower continued to rise and was high enough to be directly in line with the sun which was now well below the horizon, it turned back to its original pure white color. The crew of STS-119 was creating their own sunrise and we were watching them do it.
Shortly after the plume turned white those of us on the beach, thirty miles away from the pad, finally heard the sound of the launch. A massive rumbling, that was not loud, but powerful and shook the ground and the air we were breathing. At that point I looked around and was treated to the sight of hundreds of well wishers lined up further down the beach, perhaps for another ten miles, all with the flashes of their cameras trying to capture that same moment in time. As I gazed back at the arch of man made and heavenly color I thought to myself, awesome, just awesome, and my daughter exclaimed that it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. I guess she didn't need her glasses after all. But the show was not over, the sunset would hang on the white tapestry for many more minutes, and as the shuttle reached 200,000 feet with the helpful thrust from it's solid rocket boosters now over, the column of color and light abruptly ended with three pinpoints of light now being seen high and in the distance. Two tiny stars falling away from one brighter star that was making it's way higher and higher into the darkening sky. And then a single point of light moving further and futher down range already hundreds of miles over the Atlantic. Within nine minutes it will be over Africa. Within 11 minutes the shuttle would be in orbit. I am left with an awesome sense of both the power of God and the power of man.