Airplanista Magazine Monthly Column: Adam Fast's NASA Report: STS-135 - NASA’s shuttle era comes to an end

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This article was originally published in the September, 2011 issue of Airplanista Magazine and can be viewed here. Airplanista Magazine is an all-digital new media publication that presents aviation feature stories and content in a digital magazine format. Read the current issue here.

Photo by Adam Fast

STS-135: NASA’s shuttle era comes to an endBy Adam Fast

The odds were stacked against NASA on July 8 as the last shuttle launch approached. The weather had become continually worse leading to launch day, to the point of 70% “no go” chance of seeing a launch. The thunderstorms in the area were emitting enough lightning that it didn’t look like the weather would even allow crews to begin “tanking”, the delicate process of loading the half a million gallons of liquid Hydrogen and Oxygen into the External Tank. But when the time to begin tanking came, the lightning was distant and the mission management team decided to go for an attempt.

The thunderstorms on the day before launch had severely changed the media trip to watch the rotating service structure retraction, giving us only 20 minutes at the pad per group. My group was last, so we arrived after Atlantis had been completely revealed. Standing in the rain, I balanced a camera and an umbrella, and spent a few moments just taking in what was in front of me as a couple of other photographers ducked under my umbrella and did the same.

Upon return from the pad to the press site, I immediately got into line again for another trip scheduled for sunset where the massive Xenon spotlights would be on, brilliantly lighting the Orbiter. On my previous two trips, we were never able to stay out long enough for the Xenons to be on, so my excitement was pretty intense. There I stood, in the drizzle, trying to keep myself and my gear dry under a large umbrella.

We were told we would have twenty minutes at the pad again, and buses would be running continuously through 8:30pm. Several of us in line talked for the few hours we stood there waiting. One would hopefully be witnessing his first launch, I fell in the middle of the pack on my 4th, and the “we’re not worthy” moment came when we began talking to Klaus Wickens, who was next to us in line. Wickens, as a (now retired) NASA staff photographer, has had more space-related images on the covers of publications worldwide than any other person. He was on Launch Pad 34 documenting the tests in progress when the Apollo I fire occurred nearby. He was at Apollo, STS-1, he was there for them all. In fact, it was on his recommendation that NASA chose Hasselblad gear to go to the moon. Meeting him, and seeing through his lenses into the past was an amazing experience.

Atlantis was gorgeous on the pad that night, lit at all angles by spotlights. I took many photos, but also took more time to just be there, to savor the moment and the scene before our 20 minutes expired and I had to board the bus back to the press site.

I “slept” in my car for all of about 45 minutes that night, too excited to sleep in such an environment and too nervous to leave the grounds for my hotel room, concerned that I might miss a wakeup call. Many other press members did the same, bouncing between the on-site cafeteria and the desks in press headquarters. One group even gathered around a computer screen to watch Apollo 13. As information became available, the speakers in the building and outside would ring out “Attention at the press site! Attention at the press site!” and whatever new piece of information was just being made available. Those on “instant” deadlines would begin writing or recording items to go on TV or the internet. The rest of us made notes, edited photos or talked.

Around 2 am, the decision was made: Go for tanking. Mission Managers felt the data was good enough to give it a shot. All morning the weather was clearing. It actually began looking like we might get to launch!

About 90 minutes before launch, I transitioned outside and started getting cameras on tripods, letting lenses acclimate to the humidity and temperature, and hooking up all the wires to make sure things would run. Gear was tested and re-tested, and everything I brought with me was used. With this being the last shuttle launch, these photos would be some of the most important I have shot, and there was no way I would leave any type of camera or recorder in a bag; it would all be used.

We reached 31 seconds to launch and the pad decided it didn’t want to let go of this shuttle or this era. The gaseous oxygen vent hood, or “beanie cap” did not indicate that it had successfully retracted. The launch team swung one of the massive television cameras used to track the orbiter for gathering engineering data (and NASA TV) around and visually confirmed it was locked in the retracted position. The count resumed quickly. Excitement built rapidly as we knew we’d see a launch today.

As usual, the main engines ignited at 6.6 seconds, and the boosters followed at zero seconds. Atlantis began her final journey into Orbit with a large column of white smoke, just as Kennedy Space Center had seen 134 other times. But this one was different. Not different in a physical sense, as the pressure waves hitting the audience and the crackling pop-pop sound I wish could be adequately captured on TV was still very much present. Because of the finality that this launch represented, it invoked a wave of special emotions for all who had gathered to witness this bookend of an American era. Plenty of teary-eyed fans were among those cheering at the launch.

The press conference afterward was downright weird, but in an awesome way. Integration Manager Mike Moses detailed many technical issues and Launch Director Mike Leinbach discussed the preparation of the morning. But much of their statements and many of the questions centered around the emotions of the day. What did these men and their teams feel, regardless of the fact that most of their training and engineering background strived to remove feeling from the process?

The reality that I won’t be shuffling travel plans to make any more trips to Florida’s Space Coast has only begun to set in. Even after my time at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh this July, where many wanted to know what NASA’s “next” thing was, I don’t think I’ve fully accepted that this really is the end of the shuttle program.

But one thing is for sure - I accomplished my goal to see the final three launches and see every Orbiter on my NASA bucket list. It took four trips to Florida, most of my saved vacation time and a pronounced ding to my discretionary flying budget - but I have no regrets and am overjoyed it worked out this well.

Now, what WILL be that next big thing?

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