December 5, 2001. I had timed my visit to Florida specifically around the launch (watch the video!) of Mission "STS-108" using Shuttle "Endeavour" to take place Wednesday afternoon in the fall of 2001. I am old enough to remember the Apollo Program as well as witness the Challenger disaster some 15 years prior. Now I found myself searching up and down the coast near Cape Canaveral for a free but convenient spot to watch the launch. Invited guests only were allowed near the launch pad while those willing to pay a nominal fee could be just outside the gates of the complex on the mainland. I and other "freeloaders" were to choose from any vantage point at least five miles away that allowed roadside parking for the occasion.
The spot I ended up with was at least seven miles away near Titusville and despite assurances from veteran observers I wasn't all that sure that I'd be able to see much of anything at all. "Just look for the sudden sheer quiet in the air followed immediately by an orange glow in the low eastern horizon just above the tree line" they said. Fine. I didn't have much choice in the matter and settled in for the wait with the rest of them. The skies were cloudy and there was a slight chill in the air but all notices and indicators were that the launch, already delayed from the day before would go today.
Big problem with space launches, the weather. Safety first, above all other considerations as the Challenger reminds and resonates in clear, unforgiving fashion. At the same time it can play havoc with the vacation plans of the visitors, particularly those that drive or fly in from the far corners and are on a set schedule. I had no such time constraint but all the same we had been warned that after yesterday's delay if the shuttle did not launch this afternoon for any reason it would be at least a week before another attempt was made.
The wind had picked up to go with the overcast skies adding further worries that one and all at the Kennedy Space Center, Mission Control in Houston and here on the streets of Titusville would be disappointed yet again. It had been moved back from late November for some maintenance issues at the International Space Station then delayed again from the day before due to weather. This mission was only a supply and maintenance run to the "ISS" so other than the launch itself there was really very little fanfare around the event.
Five P.M. and all systems are go. Someone nearby with a short-wave radio is tuned in to the commentary and lets us all know on the street that we're about to get a show to end all shows. Like the ball over Times Square this countdown got everyone on their feet and calling out the numbers. "Ten, night, eight..." until exactly at 5:12PM Eastern Time there was a sudden and total quiet in the air. All noise had been sucked from the atmosphere when a bright yellow flash lit up the eastern horizon. Gray clouds over head crowned an orange glow as darker brown clouds bowled out around the orange center than elongated in to a massive tail of fire.
We still could hear nothing from the launch itself and it had little to do with our own shouts and screams of "Wahooooo" and "Go, baby, GO!" One and all were emotionally connected to this machine soaring beautifully skyward, goose bumps and chills to our very core. Some hopped up and down, some covered their ears but never broke their gaze and still others high-fived and clapped each other on the back as if they themselves had put something other than tax dollars in to this mission.
Some of us cried. Heck, a LOT of us cried. We remembered the Challenger Incident. We remained deeply wounded and shaken from the attacks on September 11th, hardly three months before. Today the excitement of the launch and the release of energy, both human and machine, proved overwhelming. Each of us in tears for various reasons looked to the skies as the orange tail flew higher in to the sky leaving a dark rooster tail of smoke from ground level up to the highest atmosphere. This time the tears for some may have been left over but for others they were tears of joy, of cleansing and acceptance. The US of A was going to be OK and damned if this launch wasn't just the thing, JUST the thing to prove it.
Finally the noise from the engines reached our chests more than our ears. As the shock waves of sound pounded in to our sternums and crackled like unimaginable thunder, "Endeavour," operating STS-108 proved to be more than just an ordinary launch after all. Far more.