At 2.20 pm on Friday, exactly as planned, space shuttle Atlantis thundered off its launch pad at the Kennedy Space Centre and set off on its 32nd -- and, perhaps, its last -- flight, carrying several tonnes of equipment to the International Space Centre. The space shuttle programme shuts down later this year.
We watched dry-mouthed from the viewing station as the countdown went, 3 2 1 0 and, suddenly, the shuttle was bracketed in white smoke. Then, with a prolonged roar that hit thrillingly in the gut, the shuttle's mammoth rockets lifted it off the launch pad, the blazing plume of exhaust gases dwarfing the afternoon sun.
"Shuttle launches must be experienced in person," avow locals in Florida's Cape Canaveral. "TV just doesn't capture the earth shaking, the sound, the held-back breathes."
As the shuttle ascended, trailing a thick white plume, the spectacle overshadowed the technological wizardry that drove it. Powering the Atlantis were two enormous Solid Rocket Boosters, strapped alongside a giant fuel tank. Each second, SRBs gulped 10 tonnes of cryogenic fuel --liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, at hundreds of degrees below zero -- converting that into gas at almost the temperature of the sun. Surging from the nozzles at 10,000 kilometers a second, these jets drove the Atlantis with as much power as 400,000 mid-sized cars.
In just two minutes, the still-visible Atlantis was 40 km high and clapping broke out as strap-on SRBs were jettisoned; now its own main engines were propelling the Atlantis. Nine minutes after launch, the shuttle was in space, hurtling at over 28,000 kmph towards its destination, ISS.
Only then did NASA and Boeing officials (who play a prime role in integrating the space shuttle) start breathing normally again. Nobody has forgotten that chilly morning in 1986 when the Challenger exploded seconds after lift-off from this very launch pad.
"You keep your fingers crossed because space flight is inherently dangerous", says Kevin Hoshstrasser, site director, Florida Operations, Boeing Defence, Space & Security. "The shuttle today is as safe as it can get; but it still works at such extremes of pressure, temperature and speed that things can go spectacularly wrong very, very quickly."
After 12 days in space, the Atlantis will return to the Kennedy Space Centre and be readied as a backup ship in case there is an emergency during the remaining two shuttle flights by the Discovery in September, and the Endeavour in November 2010. The scrapping of the shuttle programme has evoked strong sentiments within the team that runs it, evident from a radio exchange just prior to launch.
Launch director, Mike Leinbach, to the strapped-in astronauts, minutes before launch: "I'd like to wish you all good luck and Godspeed and have some fun out there."
Atlantis commander Ken Ham's response, "Thank you to the thousands of folks out there who have taken care of this bird for a long time If it's okay with you, we're going to take her out of the barn and take her for a few more laps around the planet."
Another piece of history associated with the Atlantis is a sliver of wood, provided by the United Kingdom's Royal Society, being carried by British-born astronaut Piers Sellers. This is from the apple tree under which Sir Isaac Newton is believed to have sat when a falling apple inspired him to conceive the law of gravity.
In an interview before the launch, Sellers noted: "While it's up there, it will be experiencing no gravity, so if it had an apple on it, the apple wouldn't fall. I'm pretty sure that Sir Isaac would have loved to see this, assuming he wasn't space-sick, as it would have proved his first law of motion to be correct."
Watching the launch live from viewing areas around the Kennedy Space Centre were an estimated 4,00,000 spectators, most of them ordinary Americans from across the country. Sitting next to me amidst camp chairs, rugs and the ubiquitous ice-box was Hal Kasprowicz, 73, who had driven more than a thousand kilometres from Pennsylvania. With him for the occasion were his son and grandson who had driven some 3,000 kilometers from mid-west America.
"The space shuttle is all about America. This is an opportunity for all of us to have a family reunion and be a part of this event", said Kasprowicz.
Also attending the launch were the usual slew of VIPs: US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, Russian Deputy PM Sergei Ivanov, talk show host David Letterman, TV star Lisa Edelstein and a host of US senators.
Image: Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida | Photograph: Pierre Ducharme/Reuters