Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Up, Up, Among the Stars

by Maggie Sefton

As promised----I've included five of the photos my Astronaut daughter Serena sent me. A NASA photographer took them. Aren't they gorgeous! I'll be posting them on Facebook also. Along with the link to my oldest daughter's Facebook page where she's posted a video she took of the launch, which is excellent. Her Facebook page: Christine Zanellato.

Last week, I spoke about how much fun it was to have the entire family together for that special occasion of the Atlantis shuttle launch. Today, I wanted to share some other moments we experienced during that hectic launch day Friday, July 8th and the special NASA family/friends tour of Kennedy Space Center on Saturday, July 9th. The weather gurus were predicting a 70% chance of launch cancellation for two days preceding Friday's launch, but Serena told us that NASA's policy was to go through with everything right up to the last available cancellation window and see if "a miracle would happen" and the weather would suddenly improve.



All the families/guests were at a large hotel complex in Orlando, the Caribe Royale, so our meeting place was the hotel's convention center. Perfect for gathering 300+ people. Meeting time: 5:15am for scheduled 6:00am departure for Cape Canaveral & Kennedy Space Center. I was staying in the suite with daughters Serena, Maria, & Melissa and we were all up at what former Naval officer Maria called "O-dark, thirty." Which in our case was 4:15am. We walked from our condo around to the convention center and saw all these buses lined up, one after the other, motors running. Inside, the troops gathered, and we got to watch the families straggle in, young children sleeping in parents' arms. My youngest granddaughter AnaSofia was sound asleep on her dad's shoulder. We'd all brought small coolers with snacks/breakfast/fruit to keep us going through the three plus hours it would take to get through all the traffic of spectators going to see the launch. People can find a spot along several causeways that afford a beautiful view of the shuttle launches. Ask your Florida friends. I'll bet they've done it, too.



Once at Banana Island, the spot reserved for NASA guests, we had plenty of time to explore the NASA exhitibition building located near the bleachers. There was a complete life-sized model of an Atlas rocket on display with loads of other exhibits, including booster rockets and the lunar landing module. Cool! What was even better, though, was. . .the clouds parted and the sun came out. :) Sometimes weather miracles do happen. The 11:30am launch countdown clock was ticking away when I returned from staring at rockets and lunar modules and took my spot on the bleachers with family. There was a heart-stopping hold at 31 seconds but was quickly resolved, and that big, beautiful bird flew up, up, and away. Out of Earth's gravity and our sight. Beautiful, gorgeous, and deeply moving. I'll never forget the experience.

The next day, Saturday, was the special NASA scheduled tour of Kennedy Space Center which turned out to be nearly as fascinating as launch day. We got to see the Vehicle Assembly Building where the Atlas rockets are assembled and the shuttle orbiter is lowered into place, so that rocket plus booster rockets plus shuttle orbiter can be slowly rolled out to the launch pad. That was fascinating, but the best was last, when we got to visit the Orbiter Processing Facility where the shuttle orbiters return after launches and journeys in outer space. They are then examined, tested, and repaired,. And lo and behold. . .we were treated to a sight most tourists never see: two shuttle orbiters---Discovery and Endeavor, recently returned from the International Space Station.

WOW!! Discovery and Endeavor were right over our heads, hanging in their shuttle bays while every inch was examined. They were only 5 feet over our heads!! We got to walk all around, under both shuttle orbiters, and ask questions of the engineers who were escorting us around. Our groups were small, only 8-10 people in each group, so our group naturally peppered our NASA guy with questions. You could see the heat streaks on those ceramic tiles covering the bellies of each orbiter. (No photos were allowed, of course). We could see where some tiles were damaged, actually gouged out, needing repair. Our engineer guide has been working with the orbiters for over 20 years. Believe me, they take great pride in what these shuttles have accomplished. As all American's should be.

The shuttle program of 30 years has concluded, but the future of Americans in space will continue. For a few years, our Astronauts will be hitching rides on the Russian Soyuz capsule, a sturdy little workhorse of a vehicle. Tough and reliable. But, inventive minds are already at work on the next generation of American rockets and transporters. The Dragon rocket has already been successfully tested and launched. Within five years, (I hope), American-designed and made rockets will be carrying cargo up to the ISS. Now. . .all they have to do is find a way to stick a couple of seats into those rockets, and we'll be back to launching our own Astronauts again. :)

Space exploration is in our blood. We cannot stop ourselves from exploring any more than we can stop ourselves from dreaming. It IS the stuff of dreams. Dreams come first. Then, dreams turn into reality. Keep dreaming, everyone.