McCall 1 Wesley McCall Jeff Naftzinger ENC-1101 September 17, 2013 Snap-Shots Paper: STS-135, the Final Flight of Atlantis I looked at my simple, black wrist-watch, the second hand ticking slowly. Today would be the day; the glorious day that I either got the good call or bad call. I could do nothing but pace across the dark wood floor like a caged lion at the circus. I looked at the full moon shaped clock between the twin bookcases that rested against the dark red cherry wood walls. Between the times I glanced at my watch and the clock, it’d only been – 30 miniscule seconds. How can time tick this slow! I sank into my cushioned chair resigning to the fact that I probably hadn’t been chosen. The phone on my cherry wood desk rang once. It was an old phone, fashioned after the ones from the late 1960s and bright red. It rang again, a long series of trills, and I lunged for the receiver. The person on the other end had a mildly deep voice and was someone I’d worked with before, but I couldn’t place his name. It didn’t matter, the voice said I was chosen! The commander of the last shuttle flight for America! I couldn’t speak for a few moments. By the time I gained my voice, I said my thank you’s politely and quickly, then hung up. I ran outside and yelled for my wife from the backyard… This meeting wasn’t the most exciting, in fact, it was all rather dull; but, it was possibly the most important of any we’d have this flight. Barry Wilmore sat across from me and my three
McCall 2 fellow astronauts in a small conference room with a wooden desk, 8 chairs, and a pitcher of water with glasses in the corner. It was his job as CAPCOM to communicate with us for the final mission, but now he was sharing the purpose of the final flight – to deliver the last few American made pieces to the International Space Station. Sounded easy enough. Then he cleared his throat and began discussing the possibilities that no one would admit: the risks. These were also a necessary component, but they always filled me with fear, a cold fear as though I were in an airplane about to fall to the ground. If the shuttle was compromised in any way during the trip to the ISS, then the four of us would have to return in Russian Soyuz Space Capsules over the course of the next year. A year? My family would be utterly devastated… I sat at the ancient computer waiting for the heavily trafficked page to load. They had finally released the crew! It had been on TV but I missed the revealing announcement. 2010 just kept getting better. And Ferguson was on the crew again! He had always been one of my favorites. I have to call Jon, I thought. I picked up the white, cord-less phone and dialed his number from memory, while yelling to my mom what I had to do next summer… I was excited! It was chilly February day, I had just had another birthday, and now the principal of my school announced in the grey walled cafeteria that there would be a summer field trip for anybody that wanted to attend the final shuttle launch of the United States Space Shuttle Program. We had to sign up and pay the $75 fee by March 1st in order to go. I immediately put my name down in black ink with a hand that was shaking with excitement already. I was actually going to see the last shuttle launch! … I’ve been waiting here for so long. 45 days may not seem long to a human, but my existence as a launch pad for the biggest interstellar vehicles is long and lonely without the presence of those large, white ships the humans call Space Shuttles. Now I was tickled once
McCall 3 again as maintenance personnel in dark blue uniforms scrubbed my back. The only other time that they did this was when…that’s it! They were preparing me for another shuttle launch! It went on for a few hours and then…it all stopped, and back into absolute silence I was thrust… The extreme silence only lasted for a night, but now I heard a strangely familiar sound. It was the Crawler! The light of dawn crusted the sky as the gargantuan machine traveled to me with one purpose: to load a vessel onto my back. This had to be it. I waited patiently; my purpose has been waiting since 1965, so a little more won’t hurt. The weight came all of a sudden, like that of an elephant crushing an ant. The weight of thousands of tons was a much missed feeling. I was finally useful again… I got up early for once. The day of the launch had finally come! I showered in water comparable to the water from a Jacuzzi in the middle of winter, got dressed in my “field trip” clothes, and was waiting by the door before I ever looked at the glowing time on the set-top box. I still had another hour before we had to leave; light would not touch the rim of the horizon for another couple of hours! My mom wasn’t even up yet to take me to the school. So I sat down and watched cartoons, ate breakfast, and fed my pet turtles, all while trying to remember all that I had looked up about the flight last night. It was all a memory, a blur, at this point under one, ultimate reality: I was leaving to see one of the most amazing man-made sights of history lift off for the last time… Suiting up is probably the most anxious part of the preparation to launch. I’m so close, but still so far! Douglas, Sandra, and Rex were waiting for me outside the room in their orange flight suits with the small American flags on the neck collar. We walked slowly and deliberately
McCall 4 across the Complex with everyone around us clapping and cheering. It got my red-blood pumping! My wife was at the end next to the transport waiting for us. I gave her one last kiss and an “I love you,” before crawling in next to my three friends. Leaving her and my kids behind is the hardest part of any flight… The white short-bus wasn’t too cramped. Only seven students decided to go to the launch, along with two other teachers. It was still twilight-dark, so the ride over to the Kennedy Space Center Visitors’ Complex was spent in a mixture of that half-awake, half-asleep state that most people have in the morning after a long dose of REM sleep. Once we were there, all we could do was wait. The longest wait of my life just made time tease me constantly until that magical moment when the timer on the launch hit T-minus 10 minutes… I was safely nestled in my seat going over the final flight checks with CAPCOM. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary; it actually seemed calm. The controls in front of me were all lit up, the crew was laying in the chairs that faced towards the sky, and CAPCOM said communications were working perfectly. I checked my harness for the 5th time in 5 minutes. The feeling was not unlike jumping off a cliff: once you take the leap, there’s no turning back. It was both exhilarating and scary. I looked around at the last crew of any American space shuttle, and felt nothing but pride in all three of them… The large, red-digit clock across the shallow pond hit the 10 minute mark. I bolted as fast as I could with Jon beside me to the edge of the 4-foot tall chain-link fence closest to Launch Complex 39-A. Again time and I played the waiting game, as I struggled to get clear pictures of the white shuttle, white SRBs, and the orange external fuel tank against the contrasting azure sky dotted with clouds in the distance. My hands only worsened the quality from the amount of
McCall 5 adrenaline and excitement going through my body from my head to the tips of my fingers as I gripped my phone with an iron grip… The timer counting down hit 2 minutes. This was the longest part of it all. Waiting. That’s all it was at this point. Waiting. I closed my eyes and sent up a little prayer as the timer hit 1:45… 2 minutes to launch! This is one of the most exciting times, because the event is so near, but also one of the most depressing, because one reaches a revelation that the hours of preparation are almost at an end. Pictures of the shuttle were still eluding me, due to the fact that my digital camera had died, and I had resorted to my basic phone’s measly camera. The stupid zoom function didn’t even zoom past the small pond between the shuttle and myself… I opened them again and saw 10 seconds on the timer. No more waiting. One last prayer. 6 seconds. I hit the multiple buttons needed to start the engine sequence with sweaty hands. The succeeding rumble was intense. It was nothing but pure power. These Solid Rocket Boosters each produced 80% more thrust than an F-1 engine and would carry us to 28 miles above sealevel before separating. The timer hit 0. My head was thrust back into the headrest, with no other movement optional, as we began accelerating uncontrollably towards the crystal blue sky… I hear the men in blue uniforms counting down again, this time over a speaker system. 10 seconds. The hydrogen-burn igniters began blowing red-hot sparks across my back. All I know is that these are to prevent an explosion of excess gas that may have leaked out of the rocket’s fuel reserves before launch; the last thing I wanted was for the crew to perish in a ball of flame in the sky. Then the main thrusters were engaged and the real heat began...
McCall 6 There’s no other feeling like it; the deep, thundering vibrations and the magnificent amount of heat coupled with the tremendous weight of the shuttle slowly dissipating as it flies higher and higher. And just as suddenly as it begun, it was over. Again, the silence. Complete silence and terrifying loneliness. I didn’t know it would be my last launch… Ten seconds! The camera feed from the launch pad showed a stream of red-orange sparks flying from vents in the side of the rocket to dissipate any gases on the pad itself. Six seconds was always my favorite; the time the SRBs began exploding their payload in a streamlined jet of searing flame! The live camera feed
dropped out from the heat;
those cameras were trash now, melted by
the extreme heat.
CAPCOM announced over the PA system
that Atlantis had “lift-off”!
The roars of the crowd near me were intense, but not intense enough to drown out the delayed sound and vibrations in the ground from the shuttle miles away. Four men, one ship, and multiple ISS parts marked the end of the American Shuttle Era. This was my last thought as the shuttle disappeared behind some low laying clouds to the east… The last atmospheric layer was always the worst. I can’t even remember its name; the adrenaline coursing through me and the thoughts in my mind crowded out simple, minute details of things that weren’t important at the moment. We flew through it at 18,000 mph. It was like passing through turbulence on an airplane. A brief shake and vibration and then it’s done. I hit the button to dislodge the ET; we didn’t need it anymore. I was free floating in space with the best crew that had ever piloted a 92 ton vehicle to the ISS, dead ahead.
Published on Nov 21, 2013