The Final Countdown
History was made today as the space shuttle Atlantis made the final launch of the Space Shuttle program. For a little while, the skies over central Florida will seem a little bit gloomier.
For anybody who hasn't seen a shuttle launch in person, it's truly a sight to behold. The shuttle stack can be seen from miles away as a brilliant fireball riding on two mighty pillars of dense smoke that changes color and swirls as it stagnates. After the SRB's are jettisoned, the shuttle is high enough where the three main engines are very hard to see with the unaided eye. The spent SRB's are big enough and low enough to track as they begin a majestic arc over into a nose-first attitude, headed for parachute deployment and ocean splashdown.
I was forunate enough to see shuttle launches for about 18 months prior to the Columbia disaster. It even motivated me to cram myself into a tiny Pontiac Grand Am for the 90-minute ride to Titusville, FL (the closest publicly-accessible place to view a launch) to see STS-113. And when Columbia made her final launch, I was fortuitiously in the right place to see her streaking through the sky, unaware that she had already been mortally wounded by a piece of foam from her external tank.
Shortly before I left Daytona, I witnessed an Atlas V rocket launching on another, unmanned space mission. It was pretty neat too, with its kerosene-burning engines standing in contrast to the clear blue sky. But it could never compare to the sight of those smoke-belching SRB's in terms of sheer spectacle, drama and power. American astronauts will soon return to space in Dragon capsules on Falcon rockets, but the wonder of watching anything as mighty and awe-inspiring as a genuine shuttle is likely gone forever.