The past few days, my father and I went down to Orlando to see the Space Shuttle Atlantis launch into space on mission STS-125, the final repair mission to the Hubble space telescope. We managed to snag tickets to watch the launch from the closet point open to the public, the NASA Causeway about 5 miles from the Pad 39A complex. Following are my pictures from the launch and from the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, as well as my reaction to the launch itself.
I’ve been a space enthusiast all my life, and have followed the Shuttle program since I watched John Glenn’s return to space in my 4th grade computer lab in 1998. I’ve watched most of the 34 shuttle launches since then, and have followed most of them very closely during the missions; I even woke up one Saturday morning at 5 a.m. to watch the daring repair of the International Space Station’s torn solar array panel.
However, I had never been down to see a launch in person, which I had heard was an incredible experience. When I saw that the STS-125 launch fell right in my off-week between school and my summer internship, I jumped at the opportunity to go down with my Dad (fellow space enthusiast) to see it. With the Shuttles retiring next year and only 8 flights remaining, I couldn’t be sure that I’d ever have such a perfect alignment with my personal schedule.
We spent roughly two hours at the Kennedy Space Center’s Visitor Complex, which is home to a number of exhibits and the Rocket Garden. Below you can find most of the non-duplicate pictures that I took in the Visitors area, including shots of the mock shuttle Explorer, the rockets in the Rocket Garden, the next-generation Orion crew capsule mockup, and a full-size LEGO version of the Mars Exploration Rovers (another of my favorite space missions).
Then around noon we headed out to the VIP launch viewing area, out on the Banana River Causeway about 5 miles from the launch pad, and the closest people can get if not a member of the press or under the employment of NASA. We then proceeded to wait for about 2 hours in the record 95 degree heat, the shade of our umbrella making it barely tolerable.
But in the end, it was absolutely worth it. It only lasted a few minutes, but it was an awe inspiring sight. I tried to grab a few pictures as best I could, but also wanted to take it in with my own eyes. Pictures are below.
At liftoff, the shuttle and pad were enshrouded with smoke/water vapor, but it quickly cleared the towers. The exhaust plume is as bright as the sun, leaving an afterimage on the retina, something which definitely is not captured properly in the limited dynamic range of digital still and video cameras.
It took what seemed like a long time, but was probably only 5-10 seconds, for the sound waves to hit us. They dump enormous amounts of water under the pad before ignition, which serves to suppress vibration and noise from the initial liftoff, so only once the shuttle started rolling to the east did the sound really reach us. You literally feel it in your bones, like the loudest sub-woofer you’ve ever heard.
Eventually all we could see was a bright dot of light, then the solid rocket boosters fell away and it was mostly lost to sight. Then the thousands of people on the beach make a run for their cars and buses. Three hours later we finally got back to our hotel. Lots of travel for only a few minutes, but it was totally worth it and I’d love to do it again if given the opportunity. Especially for a night launch.