Up, Up and Away: Behind the Scenes of a Space Shuttle Launch

It’s over.

If the weather holds, the space shuttle Atlantis (which made its first trip into space in 1989) will launch into orbit tomorrow (Friday July 8, 2011) from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, marking the final space shuttle mission–and the end of the Space Shuttle Program.

No replacement space program has been fully developed yet, so Atlantis is carrying a year’s worth of parts and supplies up to the space station which, from here on out, will be served by the Russian space program until NASA develops a new way to reach the scientists working there.

The Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the past, present and (hopefully) future of the NASA space program is on display for visitors.

The Space Shuttle Program is officially called the Space Transportation System and it’s always referred to as STS (NASA–which stand for National Aeronautics and Space Administration–loves acronyms). STS was started in 1981 and the program has had five different shuttles which have been successfully thrust into space 133 times (tragically, Columbia was lost during launch in 2003 and Challenger was lost during re-entry in 1986).

Because launch dates/times so often shift due to each mission’s small launch window and Florida’s variable weather they’re difficult to predict with accuracy. That’s why just one Space Shuttle launch has ever been observed in person by a President (President Bill Clinton watch Discovery go up in 1988).

The de-commissioned space shuttle Explorer on display at the Kennedy Space Center.

In 2008 we attended two Space Shuttle launches and got a unique behind-the-scenes look at the preparation. In February of that year we saw the Atlantis shuttle go up during a daytime launch. We were so amazed by the combination of science and spectacle that we returned to Florida’s Space Coast in March to watch the space shuttle Endeavor go up during a dramatic night launch. The ground shakes. People cheer. It’s one of those unique American events.

Here’s a look at the launches we witnessed and a nod to NASA as they prepare to send their shuttle up for the last time.

Launch of space shuttle Atlantis STS #122, March 2008

Space shuttles have carried more than 850 people into space. Here, space shuttle Atlantis adds a few more astronaut names to the list during a launch in March 2008 that we attended.

Shuttle Atlantis STS-122 launch #2

Since 1981, NASA's space shuttles have traveled more than 500 billion miles (equal to more than one round trip between the Earth and Jupiter). Here, Atlantis adds a few more miles to the tally during its launch in March 2008 which we attended.

Since 2009 astronauts have been tweeting from space during their shuttle missions. This 2008 launch of Atlantis, which we witnessed, was tweet-free.

The space shuttle Atlantis making easy work of a cloud during a launch we witnessed in March 2008.

Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-122 launch #5

And there she goes...space shuttle Atlantis rockets out of view during a launch we witnessed in March 2008.

Since 1981 the space shuttles have spent more than 1,320 days in space. Here, a clock tracks the amount of time space shuttle Atlantis had spent in orbit following its March 2008 launch which we witnessed.

The epic launch-Pad-39-A. Space shuttle Atlantis lifted off from here 20 hours before this picture was taken.

The vehicle assembly building (background) is the fourth largest structure in the world by volume. Moving in the foreground is the twin crawler (the largest truck in the world) practicing the slow-motion run it made three days later with space shuttle Endeavour on board. The crawler moves over a meticulously engineered road capable of holding the combined weight of the crawler and a space shuttle.

Night launch of space shuttle Endeavour STS #123, February 2008

Since 1981 space shuttles have completed almost 21,000 orbits of the earth. Here, fans (including us) gather at Kennedy Space Center to watch the night time launch of space shuttle Endeavour.

Space Shuttle Endeavour STS-123 night launch #1

Space shuttles travel at 17,500 mph. Here, spaces shuttle Endeavour is ready for take off during a night launch we witnessed from the Kennedy Space Center in February 2008.

Space shuttle astronauts, including the ones on the Endeavour (above) which we watched during a night launch, travel so fast around the earth that they see sunrise every 45 minutes.

In 2010 a space shuttle mission cost US$775 million to plan and execute. Here, Endeavour successfully launches from the Kennedy Space Center.

Skies were cloudy the night we watched the space shuttle Endeavour launch from Kennedy Space Center so it was only visible for a few (very dramatic) moments before it disappeared behind clouds.

Ready to get really geeky about the final space shuttle mission? Download the Go Atlantis app for iPads and iPhones.


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5 comments on “Up, Up and Away: Behind the Scenes of a Space Shuttle Launch

  1. I didn’t think I was that interested in shuttle launches until I read this.

    I get the sense of history unfolding and the determination that has brought us to this time. And I didn’t know that the Russian space program will continue to service the space station. I wonder what the next U.S. development will be?

    Your photos are really moving – especially the last one of Endeavour disappearing into the clouds – a really wonderful photograph.

    I feel I have been educated – in the best possible way.

    All the best,
    David Bennett recently posted..The Curve Of The GherkinMy Profile

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