Not my best video, but you'll get the idea - the good stuff starts about 3:55 in
Backing up for a second, our journey to Florida to view the launch was nearly derailed before we ever left Ohio. Checking my phone as we drove to the airport, I saw that our flight to Atlanta was seriously delayed. Long story short, almost every flight to Florida was overbooked (no doubt due at least in part to the Shuttle launch) but we made the last flight into Daytona Beach and drove to Orlando in time to board our tour bus. Phew... major crisis averted.
The forecast put the chance of acceptable weather for a Friday launch very low, about 30% at best, for most of the week. Miraculously, the rain stayed at bay and the clouds lifted so the folks in charge at NASA were able to make the "go" call during the T-minus 9 minute hold. I feel incredibly fortunate that STS-135 / Atlantis launched on time this morning, on the first attempt, and we were able to view the launch with essentially zero hiccups. Space flight is obviously a complex beast and that's not the most common occurrence - to have things work out so well on the final Shuttle mission was more than anyone could have asked for.
Our tickets were through a tour company, so we were bused from Orlando to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and then to the NASA Causeway, and then brought back to Orlando post-launch. We spent about 2.5 hours in the KSC Visitor Complex (KSCVC) before getting in line to head out to the NASA Causeway. During our time at the KSCVC we walked through the Rocket Gallery, watched the IMAX film Hubble 3D (beautiful imagery), and I took some photos. We arrived at the Causeway about three hours prior to scheduled launch time.
This was a beautiful sight, even at 2:30 in the morning!
KSC's Rocket Garden
There was only one slight hiccup during the launch - the computer couldn't confirm that the External Oxygen Vent Arm had properly retracted. NASA confirmed retraction via cameras on the launch pad and the count resumed only a couple minutes after the initial hold. You could sense the emotion in the massive crowd - people were cheering as we got closer and closer to launch. Yet there was also a distinctly bittersweet undercurrent since this launch marked the end of an era.
We soon reached the moment you've probably heard on TV many times, but it's very different in person with the Shuttle in plain view across the water... T-minus 10, 9, 8, 7, main engine start, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1... and liftoff of Space Shuttle Atlantis for the very last time! It's just incredible how quickly the vehicle accelerates - roughly 1:30 after launch it's already 15 miles in the air. Less than 30 seconds later, it's going 2,600 mph and is 21 miles high. Heck, by the time our bus left KSC property Atlantis had already flown completely around the planet - twice! The only disappointment was that the sound and shock wave were very muffled, possibly due to the strong wind blowing at our backs. That said, it was still a sight to behold and I hope you enjoy some of the photos below...
On the pad about 30 minutes prior to the scheduled launch
NASA's famous Vehicle Assembly Building
External Oxygen Vent Arm retraction
NASA helicopter monitoring the crowd shortly before the launch
Main Engine Start
Just prior to SRB ignition - final chance to abort
Liftoff of Space Shuttle Atlantis!
The vehicle has cleared the tower
Watching the smoke trail drift away
Needless to say, this experience is one I imagine I'll remember for the rest of my life and tell my kids about some day. Though I'm far too young to have experienced the Space Race or Apollo program first-hand, I've always been fascinated by the technology and history. Today I can finally say I've seen a group of human beings break the surly bonds with my own two eyes... and what a sight it was to behold.