The End of a Space Era

Mike Theiss
photo by Mike Theiss

It’s 3.45am, I’m battling not only with mosquitoes, but also a swarm of photographers each trying to claim good spot to set up their camera to capture the final shuttle landing. We squeeze ourselves into a prime section of the balcony overlooking the 2.8 mile long runway on which the shuttle is due to land in just over two hours. A combination of smiling sweetly, being small and success with human Tetris secures me a minute spot for my camera. We’re all happy, so long as nobody dares move even a hair’s width from their position.

I’ve barely slept and am already melting in the Florida heat and humidity. Two hours spent waiting to get on a bus to take me to the shuttle landing facility haven’t helped matters, but I’m here, and there’s nowhere on Earth I’d rather be (bear in mind the shuttle in still in orbit).

We listen to the loudspeakers for any information about weather conditions. If they are not suitable for landing at Kennedy, the shuttle can be routed to Edwards Air Force Base in California instead. Until the de-orbit burn is completed, just over an hour before landing, we won’t know for sure that we’ll get to witness this historic landing. There’s a cheer when we get the news that she’s headed our way.

In the darkness, the landing countdown clocks look like large digital alarm clocks from the 1980s, with their glowing red numbers counting down until the end of the shuttle era. With just 9 minutes left of Atlantis’s final mission, we are graced by the International Space Station arcing across the sky above us. The shuttle won’t fly again, but it’s a timely reminder that humans will continue to work in space, even when these birds retire.

At around four minutes before landing the two sonic booms echo out like gunshot, one each for the nose and tail of the orbiter as she returns to subsonic speeds before landing. I’m poised with my camera and my eyes to drink this all in. A flare of xenon lights illuminates the end of the runway, waiting to greet Atlantis one last time.

Just twenty seconds to go and wait! There she is. The sound of shutter releases quickly replaced by gentle applause: STS135 – Mission complete. “That’s the quickest ten seconds of the space program” says someone behind me. He’s not wrong. From first sight of Atlantis to her screeching by right ahead of us and then vanishing behind the trees for wheel stop took roughly as long as it takes to say “Wow! Whoosh! Gone”.

A long line of weird and wonderful vehicles caravan onto the runway behind her to make her safe and assist the astronauts out of their craft. Following tradition, a line is painted on the runway to mark the exact spot where each shuttle stops, thus literally drawing a line to mark the end of the shuttle program.

Editor’s note. Don’t miss the great audio content below that Kate got at Kennedy after the landing. Our thanks to Audio Boo for making this possible.

audio by Kate Arkless Gray

audio by Kate Arkless Gray