Discovery’s Last Flight

photo by Joel Sartore

It was the sign I had waited 115 days to see: “Days until launch: 0”. Driving towards the press site I was asking myself, “is this it? is this the day that Discovery will finally launch?”

The last time I was here, I watched tearfully as Discovery’s flag was ceremoniously lowered from the flagpole beside the mission countdown clock. The launch had been scrubbed due to a hydrogen leak and all my hopes were dashed.

Today though, the sun was shining, the press trucks were out in force, and I was ready to see this bird fly.

There was a nervous pause as we heard that the countdown clock had been stopped. A problem with range control meant that at that moment, we were no go. No-one knew quite what was going on. We waited.

The shout of “the clock’s counting down again” was like sweet music to our ears. The world stood still for me as the adrenalin rushed through my veins. I was physically shaking. I’d waited all these months to see this, and there it was.

The beginnings of what would turn out to be an immense plume of smoke confirmed the shuttle’s main engines had been ignited. Dense white water vapour billowed out like a timelapse of clouds rolling in, except this was real time. This was happening in front of me.

My heart was racing as I caught my first glimpse of the scorching flames shooting out of the solid rocket boosters. I’ve never seen anything so bright. It was like watching the sun burn a hole through the sky. It was incredible.

The speed of sound is slower than the speed of light so it took a few moments before the immense wall of sound hit us from across the water. It started with a low rumble, like a runaway train hurtling down the tracks and then grew to a crescendo of sound that was so powerful you could feel it shaking you. It’s difficult to describe it, as it got louder the sound began to pop, like 1000 fireworks going off at once.

I watched the trail of orangey smoke from the rocket boosters against a blue sky as the shuttle soared higher and higher, faster and faster. Even the smoke was beautiful. The shuttle, no more than a pin prick of light in the sky by now, separated from the solid rocket boosters and continued its journey up into space.

photo by Ira Block

Just as the sound wave had washed over me, I now felt a strange wave of emotions. There were no words to describe what I had just seen, I was entirely in awe of it. I stood, in my own little bubble as people checked their cameras, exchanged hugs and struggled to explain what they’d just seen. It was truly an amazing moment that will stay with me for many years.

I was told, before I saw a launch, that I had to be there to experience it. Only now do I understand what they meant by that. There is no way that a camera can do justice to the experience of watching a shuttle launch. It will never be able to capture the trepidation, the excitement, and the sheer power of the sound and feel of it. Time is running out if you want to share this experience so don’t put it off. Do whatever it takes to get there, you won’t regret it.