Endeavour Launch 4: From Columbia to Atlantis

Michelle-Othon

I’ve been back in New York for a couple of weeks now, and I’m finally beginning to catch up with the many things that need attention since I was out of the office for my Florida trip.  While I was out on vacation, Spring apparently sprung with a vengeance, and has since turned into Summer (with or without my permission) and has left me beating back the jungle that somehow passes for my yard.

I’m continuing this saga-worthy blog of my “Journey to see the Space Shuttle Launch”, not because I’m starved for attention or because I have a massive amount of free time to scribble out my idle ponderings, but because I have an interesting update to the story…

When I finally returned home from my vacation, I made sure to take some time to write a proper thank you note to my NASA hosts (Bob and Sandi) for the invite and the opportunity.  After all, it’s not exactly their fault that the Endeavour didn’t launch on schedule…  Just for grins, I included links to my previous blog posts in case they were interested in taking a peek at them.  (Or, perhaps, in the event that they needed a literary equivalent to Ambien.)  Bob sent a very nice reply to my email, again thanking me for my contributions on the Columbia accident investigation, and expressed his regrets for the Endeavour launch delay.

The morning of the actual launch (May 16th), my plan was to get to work early so that I could grab a quick breakfast, then sit quietly in the cafeteria and search for a live internet feed of the event.  In typical fashion, I was running a little on the late side, and I was inaudibly yelling (at least I was in my own head…) at the traffic to get out of my way so that I could proceed to the cafeteria for my personal “breakfast and shuttle launch” date.  When I arrived at my office, I raced to the cafeteria with my computer before anyone even knew that I was there.  Got my breakfast?  Check.  Got my coffee?  Check.  Got an internet feed?  Dang.  This one was a showstopper.  I frantically searched for a live feed for about ten heart-stopping minutes until I found a site that our network would allow me to visit.  (By the way, to our IT teams – well done!  It’s difficult to get to websites that y’all don’t feel are work-related and necessary!)  When the video feed that I clicked on came alive, I saw the countdown clock at 57 seconds until launch.  SUCCESS – I’ll be able to watch the launch!

So I’m sitting there in the cafeteria, feeling my heart rate go up just from listening to the live commentary, watching the crowds go wild with anticipation, and waiting to see the awe-inspiring signature cloud of exhaust mushrooming from below the beast, less than 30 seconds to liftoff, when suddenly… PING! What the…?!?  Instead of hearing the roar of the engines, I hear an email coming in.  In my haste to get everything in order for this almost perfect moment, I had neglected to shut down Outlook so that I wouldn’t be disturbed.  Partly peeved at myself for my absentmindedness, and partly irritated for the intrusion, I indignantly tried to ignore the email so that I could return my attention to the launch.  Only 14 seconds left to go until liftoff…  The only problem was, out of the corner of my eye, I happened to notice who the imposing email was from.  It was from Sandi – my uber-organized NASA contact!  (Just seeing an email from her at that precise moment made me laugh out loud over how annoyed I was about getting an email during the launch.  Oops!  All is forgiven…)  I figured that she was just sending a “sorry you didn’t see it” courtesy note based on the thank you email I had previously sent, so I went back to my live feed.  3…2…1…LIFTOFF!  Even at the remote location of the office cafeteria, it was so beautiful that it literally brought tears to my eyes.  Double dang.  I really wanted to be there to experience it.  Oh well, I tried.

I composed myself enough to chat with a few friends and colleagues in the cafeteria on my way back to my office.  There’s no way that I could’ve expressed to anyone what I was feeling at that moment – few people would understand or relate to the significance of it all.  When I got back to my office, I closed my door and called Maura (who’s still in Florida with her dad).  I knew that she would “get it”.  After talking to her and cycling through an entire gamut of emotions about the launch, we said our goodbyes and I proceeded to start my workday.  First order of business was to attack my emails to see what the day had in store for me…

Oh yeah!  I had forgotten that I had an email from Sandi.  I took a deep breath and opened it up.  Like I said, I figured it’d be a consolation type of email, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Apparently, she actually had taken the time to read my blog posts (which provided insight into why this launch was so meaningful to me), and she liked it so much that she and Bob were extending an invite to the last launch of the shuttle program – the Atlantis!  Oh…my…GOSH!  Did that really just happen?!?  Is this really a possibility?!?  To be honest, I never expected either of them to look at the blog posts.  Like everyone else in the world, they’re busy people.  I know that I don’t always respond to things in a timely fashion (unless there’s a fire emergency call on my pager), and it would’ve taken me a couple of weeks to even think about looking at someone’s blog post – especially if I didn’t know them very well.  Fortunately for me, they operate differently than I do!  I promptly called Maura back to see if she was up for “Shuttle Launch Adventure Part II”.  There was a long pause on the other end of the line.  I could completely visualize the gears in her brain whirring into overdrive while she factored in all the variables before giving an answer.  And then…”Of course I’m still interested in doing it!”  What a day of roller-coaster emotions.  I was exhausted before I even started my workday!

In the days since the launch, I have very much enjoyed every tidbit of information that I’ve seen on the news, or read on the internet, regarding the mission of the STS-134 crew.  Some of the mission was scientifically interesting, and some of it was just plain fun to learn about:

  • The delivery/installation of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer 2, designed to look at the origin and structure of dark matter.  (This one is quite literally worlds above my level of understanding…)
  • Delivery of a new “Materials International Space Station Experiments” (MISSE), and the subsequent return of an older MISSE.  (Being a materials analyst, this one is more my speed.)
  • Playing with LEGOs to see how building models in a microgravity environment presents various challenges.  (Okay, this one is definitely more my speed!)

I can’t imagine that a typical “day at the office” is ever dull for these guys.

I have now officially accepted the kind offer to see the Atlantis launch.  Already the launch date has been changed from late June to early July, and I’m already having anxiety-filled Mr. Bill type moments here.  (As in…”Oh noooooo…not again!”)  I’m not exactly sure how to plan this time, but I’m thinking that I might just wing it.  After all, we had very carefully planned every detail of the last trip, and the end result didn’t exactly cooperate with the “plan”.

Although I couldn’t possibly be more grateful for this new opportunity, I’m still going to allow a tiny part of my memory to be just a little bummed about not seeing the Endeavour – mostly because of GRC’s remote connection to astronaut Greg Chamitoff.  Yes, I know that I will most likely never meet him (or any other astronaut for that matter), and that’s okay.  I don’t personally need to meet someone to feel inspired by them.  In fact, sometimes it’s just the idea of a person and what they represent that is the most powerful inspiration.  (I never had the opportunity to meet Mother Teresa, but her inspiration is alive inside of me.)  For me, it’s the same irrational feeling of having a connection with the shuttle Columbia simply because I physically saw it when I was a child – the experience was now a part of me.  I didn’t need to climb into it and fly around to know what an incredible marvel it was.  I knew it just by looking at it and by understanding what it was designed to do.  Listening to Greg at Global Research last year was the same thing – even though I was outside of the room and I didn’t actually even get to see him, the inflection in his voice said it all.  He literally sounded as if he were exploding with joy talking about his job.  That’s the experience that I now take with me and truly appreciate.  The bottom line is that in a perfect world it would’ve been nice to experience the launch while knowing that the guy that gave me so much inspiration last year was actually inside that distant machine on his way to the International Space Station.  I have no words to describe what a remarkable feeling of coincidence that would’ve been.  Now that the crew of STS-134 is due to return in a few days, I’ll just stay focused on their safe return home.  Once that happens, I can slowly start the process of getting amped up for the STS-135 launch.

Since I’ve been home for a while now, I’ve had many discussions with people regarding my trip.  A few people tell me things like, “You did WHAT?”, “Why would you do that?”, “You spent HOW much vacation time on it and you still didn’t get to see it?”, and “I don’t get it, but whatever.”  That’s okay.  For every unsympathetic comment I’ve received, I’ve easily collected ten or twenty really supportive comments.  At a fundamental level, I work at a research center.  Most good researchers know that some of the greatest inventions were either born from accidents, or from the “what if” factor.  What if we could make a device that creates light inside of a glass bulb to brighten a room when the sun goes down?  What if we could build a machine to carry humans to the moon?  What if we could make jet engines quieter, lighter and more fuel efficient?  Research is based on dreams, (whether they may be whimsical or practical – it doesn’t really matter), and it takes the collective effort of many hard-working individuals to turn these dreams into a concrete reality.  I am part of this collective effort.  I once read that the average adult is confronted with over 30,000 choices per day in our everyday lives.  I suppose that’s possible.  (What time should I set the alarm?  Can I get away with hitting the snooze one more time?  Of the twelve emails that require action items, which one do I answer first?)  For me, one of these choices could’ve easily been to become jaded at my failed attempts to accomplish a goal (such as my not seeing the Endeavour launch).  Instead, I choose to stay a dreamer.  Among thousands of other blessings in my life, being a dreamer has secured me invites to the last two remaining launches of the US Space Shuttle program.  Who knows where else it may lead?  I’m very much looking forward to seeing what the next generation of dreamers will come up with, not only in regard to the US space exploration efforts, but also right here in my own “playground” at GRC!

Stay inspired (in whatever form you may find it), and wish me luck on my next attempt at seeing a shuttle launch!

Part 1: How networking can land you a seat at a space shuttle launch
Part 2: Trip to see the Endeavour Shuttle launch
Part 3: Last flight of the Endeavour has been the trip of a lifetime


1 Comment

  1. Renuka Rajput-Ghoshal

    It is really nice blog!
    But the magnet which went on ISS is #Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer” not “AMS2”. AMS2 is superconducting magnet and much stronger than AMS. I worked on AMS2 in my previous job.