I drove up on the spur of the moment to watch the last launch of the last Atlantis shuttle at Cape Canaveral.
Despite the threat of this 135th launch being scrubbed and memories of 3-hour traffic jams getting out of there, I wanted to give it a shot.
I’m ever so glad I did. This was history, America and my Florida – all rolled into one.
It was too cloudy to see it even from Vero Beach, a possible stop on the way for usually clear vantage positions.
I arrived at my “secret spot” – I won’t need that term again – off U.S. 1 along the river south of the Causeway bridge in a residential stretch in Cocoa. From that vantage point, I had a terrific view and got to talk with the nice folks from the neighborhood – many of whom had ties to NASA.
Meet Ed, ex-NASA worker
The informal get-together of neighbors at this particular spot drew Ed DiChristina, a retired NASA worker. He had worked “from the start” of the shuttle missions at Cape Canveral as an external tank cryogenic systems engineer. He began at the Cape in 1979, before the first launch, when testing began in earnest, working dozens of shuttle missions afterward.
Along the riverside, set up on a folding table, he had assembled a mini-exhibit, filled with clippings, memorabilia and models he had collected over the years.
His prizes from the batch included a shuttle patch from STS-53, a 1992 Discovery flight. The patches flew with the astronauts, and were given to all the shuttle workers once the mission was complete.
It came with a letter thanking him for his work, signed by Col. Robert Cabana, shuttle pilot — and DiChristina’s neighbor. Cabana would make four flights.
“He’s the Kennedy Space Center director now,” DiChristina said.
Early days were risky
DiChristina explained his own job. “We filled up the tanks for the launch.I was there when it was all by ‘scratch.’ We were learning as we went,” he said. “It was very risky, yes. It was scary the first time they were launching the vehicle.”
He said everyone was nervous for the first blast-off. “People weren’t sure about the impact of that first launch. No one was anywhere near the blast zone.” They did all they could with multiple ground tests, checklists and back-ups, but ultimately, the success of the first launch brought relief to the ground crews.
Each launch got better, he said, and after a while, they knew what to expect. Or thought they did.
The Challenger disaster changed everything. “After the Challenger, it was different. That broke the innocence. It opened the eyes of many people,” he said.
He’s proud of what America accomplished with the shuttle, he said. “I’m really sad to see it end. We were exploring. And there will be a lot of people out of work. Now, the Russians will have to take us up there, I guess. I hope they keep up a space program.”
‘You never get tired of seeing them’
The small viewing party here, complete with picnic foods and flags and dogs, was organized by Roger Naumann, whose still unfinished dock provided a viewpoint for many of his neighbors. He’d gathered the neighbors over the years to watch launches of shuttles and rockets from the riverbank across the street from his home.
“A lot of the people around here work at NASA, or have some ties to it,” he said. He’s involved with the theme parks, and creates faux rock formations used at places like Disney World’s Thunder Mountain.
“I’ve lived here for 12 years. I’ve seen probably 15 or 20 launches,” he said. “I can’t remember them all – but you never get tired of seeing them,”he said.
He was excited about watching the last one, “I couldn’t miss it” – but sad, too. “I think it’s going to be beautiful. It’s a disappointment to see it come to an end, though. I think, the space program is important for America, and now we’ll have to depend on other people to take us up. It’s going to be bad for Florida’s Space Coast, too.”
Another observer was overheard: “This is just wrong. We are the Space Coast.”
Danes drive from Key West
Another viewer at the launch was Anette Hammer, from Holstebro, Denmark. She was with her husband Kim, and two sons, Lesse and Kristian. They were guests of Donald and Linda Blackmer, who live in the neighborhood.
She was a college exchange student, living with the Blackmers in Cocoa Beach, when she first saw a shuttle launch.
“I was here 28 years ago,” she said. “I saw one of the first shuttles. Now, I’m back, with my family. I wanted them to see this. It’s been wonderful to show my boys my experience. They have heard about it over the years.”
Countdown halted at T-minus 31
As the countdown neared, the crowd drifted to the riverbank and onto the dock. A radio tuned to the NASA control room blasted the countdown and chatter between the crew and ground control. At 31 seconds, the countdown was halted. Veteran watchers knew this could mean five more minutes or five more days of waiting.
The countdown resumed – the technical glitch was fixed. The crowd counted down, all eyes glued to the launchpad area northeast of the bridge: “Ten. Nine. Eight…”
A white cloud of smoke billowed from the ground beyond the bridge. A white and orange column of fire was visible amidst the smoke, and the noise began to rumble as far-off thunder. The rocket climbed into the clouds, visible only a few minutes.
Everyone waved their flags or caps. Cheers and applause went on for a minute as the rocket blasted into the clouds. Not many eyes were dry – everyone watching could say, “I saw the last shuttle launch.”