I had just awakened this morning and looked at the clock on the bedside table – 5:42 am. As I lay there wondering why the sleeping pill I had taken the night before only yielded 5 hours of sleep, I heard it.
Boom, boom. The double sonic boom of the space shuttle returning to earth. I live in central Florida within the glide path of the shuttle. From my house to Cape Canaveral is a little more than a two hour drive. The shuttle makes it in less than 10 minutes.
I never got to see a launch up close, but saw many of them from a 100 or so miles away. If the skies were clear, you could see the vapor trail and the sunlight glinting off the shuttle. Night launches were the best, the blaze from the rocket boosters easily visible for hundreds of miles.
I remember one launch that occurred just before sunrise in May of 2000. I was driving east on US Highway 50 just east of Brooksville, Florida almost at the halfway mark of my 82 mile one way commute. At first, I didn’t realize what I was seeing in the sky ahead of me, then it dawned on me that it must be the shuttle leaving earth to rendezvous with the space station. It was a spectacular sight. The shuttle was clearly visible riding the fire of its engines into space as the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon. As the sun came up, the sky turned red, and the vapor trail was orange and pink against the red of the sky. The wind blew the vapor trail turning it into wispy fingers spreading over the horizon. Even the guy on the radio, commented on the sky, urging everyone to go outside for a look. That shuttle was also Atlantis.
This morning was just a little sad for me. I was happy the astronauts were safely home, but sad that this was the end of America’s manned space exploration. I remember watching those early Gemini, Mercury and Apollo missions on black and white tv. I saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. I thought we would always be a nation leading the way into space, but now we will have to hitchhike on Russian craft to reach the space station.
Still, my heartfelt thanks to all those smart rocket scientists who figured out how to get us into space and back again, the courageous astronauts that braved the unknown to take a ride into space, and the many industrious people who worked to assemble and make it possible for those rides. You all fueled the imaginations, hopes and dreams for a country that took pride in having a vision and taking the lead.
I’m going to miss those double sonic booms.