by Ted Manna
May 16, 2011
GOO0BYE TO ENDEAVOUR
MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. -- Even from miles away on the Banana River, here on Merritt Island, Fla., the shuttle takeoff spectacle impresses first-timers and old hands both, and if it hadn't been for a little help from one of those launch veterans, I still could have lost the final liftoff of the Space Shuttle Endeavour in the clouds this morning.
The raw power and white hot light from those twin hydrogen combustion rockets amaze the senses, and moments later, as the roaring and rumble thunders over the land and water, the visceral effect is like being in a 12-cylinder Cadillac when Al Cadorin, a longtime resident, punches the accelerator, snapping my head back and driving the vibration right into my gut.
It's not hard to understand why most longtime residents here have mixed feelings about the end of the shuttle launches on the Space Coast. Just minutes after launch, there seemed to be a collective sigh of relief when the live feed from launch central announced the Endeavour, now too high to see, had jettisoned its fuel tanks and reached that new frontier called Space.
Even the grey-white clouds, when they let some of Florida's beautiful blue sky show through, seemed to stand in awe of the dazzling white plume from those engines, brilliantly hanging almost motionless. Once this most dangerous and frightening stage is over, there will be no repeat of the Challenger disaster, which blew up during at this critical moment in one of these astounding displays, killing the astronauts and raining debris far and wide.
The mood in the surroundings areas was markedly different than two weeks ago when Pres. Obama and Rep. Gabby Giffords, wife of Commander Mike Kelly, were scheduled the view the launch. That was scrubbed until today for both technical reasons and timing. There were predictions of huge crowds and traffic jams, and schools and businesses closed early. This time there was a crowd of 500,000 people watching, but they made barely a blip in residents' daily lives, their life and schedules unchanged.
The Barnes & Noble Bookstore in Merritt Island is a surprisingly busy place. On an evening two weeks ago when residents expected the launch the following day, the small café was about half-filled with people talking, reading, studying and generally being serious. Here, I began a "man on the beach" search for comments on the then-upcoming shuttle launch.
"I've seen it about a bajillion times," quipped Holly Phillips, 16, of Titusville, FL, the gateway to Cape Canaveral where the shuttle was set to take off at around 3:27 p.m. two weeks ago. "I think the exhaust of the shuttle looks like a bright firefly with its butt on fire, leaving a trail of such brilliance I can't describe it. It shakes the whole house."
"They are saying there is going to be around 700,000 to 750,000 people here on Friday and I know it's going to take forever to get home from school, And we are even going to be released early.
"The whole section in front of the [Indian River] is going to be closed where people usually are allowed to watch, and getting home from school is going to be impossible," she predicted.
"There is a lot of talk at school about President Obama being here for the launch, but I think his coming here belies the fact that he is stopping the space program and a lot of people are going to be out of work."
"I know this may sound unpatriotic, but I think the President is here trying to show support because he is taking jobs away," the young organic chemistry student said.
Rep. Giffords arrived on April 25, two days before her husband was scheduled to command the flight. Many people said Pres. Obama was here in Cape Canaveral to support the injured congresswoman when her husband blasted off.
Rachel Jimenez, 25, of Melbourne, a town a little south of the launch site, has a degree in astrophysics and tutors Holly in her organic chemistry studies. She thinks about the astronauts and what they are experiencing during a manned flight, as opposed to when she watches the Delta and Atlas series unmanned rockets blast cargo into space.
"I think about everything they are going through," Jimenez mused. " I sense them going through the different stages. I wonder what they are experiencing and if they wonder if they are gong to get through it.
"The Delta and Atlas rockets carry just cargo, no people, so if that has a problem, it's just things. I wonder what the astronauts are thinking when they get to Max Q [the term used to describe the shuttle passing through the sound barrier]. That is the instant when the Challenger exploded. "
"If you look closely, you can see the movement and the rotation, and that is the time when the Challenger exploded. You can sense them going through it and then they are through it, the boosters separate and they hit MECO (main engine cut off) and then they are in space.. They have made it into space.
"It is such an amazing feat," Jimenez says. "The light that comes out of the blast has four colors, like nothing else you have ever seen. The color of the plume is unique.
"This is not a political event," she adds, "but the layoffs of almost 2,000 people at the Cape hits really close. It's a shame that a lot of people with a lot of ability will be out of work.
"This is the only public place where you can actually see the launch with your own eyes.," she says. "When China or Russia launch, it's totally hidden and in secret and we are going to lose that.
"It's a shame we went from going to the Moon to not even putting people into orbit. We should be on Mars by now. We are relying on other countries to put people into space."
Rachel even had a layman's explanation of why, if the launch gets scrubbed, it can't just blast off after the weather clears or the glitches get fixed.
"You only have a 10-minute window to get the shuttle to ISS (International Space Station). If you miss that, you have to wait till the next day, only 24 hours later. If not Friday, they will try for Saturday."
As it turned out, of course, the world had to wait another two weeks to May 16, when the launch successfully took place, all engines performing perfectly.
Monday's liftoff, scheduled midway through that same 10-minute window, put the spaceship on a course for a rendezvous and docking with the International Space Station on Tuesday.
Martha Kruze, a former state senator from Greenwood Village, Colo., who ran against the far better-known Rep. Tom Tancredo for the 6th District congressional seat in 1998, thinks that the President's visit might bring some new attention to the cut in funding for space exploration.
"We have so much from space exploration in our everyday lives," Kruze said. "It has helped in a lot of ways. And now it will be almost 8 years before we see a new program, and that budget is drastically reduced."
Sen. Kruze is right about space technology benefitting everyday life. The Space Foundation, a non-profit advocate for all sectors of the space industry that is based in Colorado Springs, Colo., offers a certification program to recognize products originally developed for space that have been adapted to improve life on earth
They recently added, for example, Tampa, Fla.'s, Psoria-Shield as a Space Certification Partner. Psoria-Shield uses deep ultra-violet light-emitting diode (UVLED) technology in a medical device that treats skin disorders. That's just one of thousands of breakthroughs, discoveries, new materials and commercial products that have come out of America's decades-old space program.
Monday's flight is NASA's 134th and next to last shuttle mission, but it is the 25th and last for the Endeavour orbiter. The spacecraft was built from extra parts of Atlantis and Discovery following the tragic Challenger disaster on Jan. 28, 1986, just 73 seconds into the mission, when a booster failure caused an explosion that destroyed the vehicle and killed all seven crew members.
Discovery is already mothballed and scheduled for display, while Atlantis blasts off in June for the final launch. That, for some, will be a bittersweet reminder of the stark reality that so many workers will lose their jobs when the mission ends.
The lead shuttle contractor, United Space Alliance, plans to lay off approximately 2,000 employees in July or August, and many local businesses and shop owners say they are fearful of what the future without the shuttle will bring.
It may also mean the exodus of many highly skilled and well-paid workers. While launching hardware into space will continue to be big business, China, Russia and India are making major headway with their space programs. Other states in the Southeast are spending large amounts in incentives and tax rebates to lure new businesses away from Florida.