Submitted by Pamela Whiffen, NESTA Southwest Regional Director
Impatiently, we had all been waiting for the big event, and as we whizzed by in our touring buses, we exchanged fleeting waves with the tens of thousands of people who lined the beaches, roads, parking lots, and front yards of every square mile of the journey towards the Kennedy Space Center complex. Once at Kennedy, our human ant hill streamed restlessly towards the NASA buses that would transport us to the NASA causeway. Nearly two hours later and shortly after noon, over 80 buses inched towards the causeway and within an hour the causeway was submerged in a sea of humanity. There were a few covered tents with folding chairs for those lucky ones who arrived first, but most lay stretched out in the Florida sun on their own towels alongside coolers filled with sodas.
Conversations drifted quietly along with the breeze and a general sense of tiredness began to set in while a school of dolphins played just beyond the shoreline. Perhaps a third of the spectators had come from countries far beyond our national boundaries. This was, after all, a significant world event and not a uniquely American one. The magnificent machine that we had all come to see would soon be on its way to the International Space Station bringing its crew to join astronauts from Japan, Russia, and Canada. The Station, hurtling across the sky at 17,000 mph offers proof that the human passion for exploration can overcome the cultural and political barriers that divide us so fiercely here on our own planet.
Launch was set for 4:50 pm and as the countdown clock neared the two hour mark, the voices of mission control could be heard meticulously checking each system. Time seemed to pass oddly slowly as adrenaline kept us in a state of nervous anticipation. Then, quite suddenly, the realization that the countdown had reached the ten minute mark energized the crowd. Everyone rose to their feet and stood in deafening silence waiting for the moment, the moment of the big event. The loudspeaker boomed out the news of an anomaly and the countdown stopped then started again. A low level hum swept across the humanity on the causeway as the word was passed that the engineers had only five minutes left to clear Discovery for launch.
Abruptly, with only 1.3 seconds left, the announcement came that Discovery was go for launch. As we turned toward the launch pad and strained to see the glistening metal across the jetty, a dramatic orange slice of light split the sky open as blindingly white clouds billowed beneath it. We could see first the nosecone and then the whole craft as the sound waves caught up to us and roared across the water bringing with them the faint smell of hot gas. As it rose into the thin clouds, only its widening contrail was soon left. Then it was gone. The crew had left us for a most excellent adventure.
As Discovery hurtled towards its encounter with the Station, the moment seemed to transform all of us in the crowd into one united spirit. Tears flowed, voices cried out in joy, and an immense sense of pride engulfed all of us. The human spirit, the power of science, swept through the crowd and glowed in our eyes. This was the moment, the event, the pinpoint of time that engulfed us with immeasurable inspiration. In that moment, we all shared a pure moment of joy.