Kathleen Woith
The space shuttle Atlantis lifts-off May 12.

An invitation from NASA to watch the launch of the space shuttle is not something you can ignore.  So, May 8, I headed to the Kennedy Space Center. 

You know you’re not in Illinois when the directions read: Stop at the Badging Center across from the Air Liquide plant next to the big rocket! 

Within a few hours, I was standing on a distant NASA landing strip, waiting for the seven Atlantis astronauts to arrive by jet from Houston. 

To celebrate both the 2009 International Year of Astronomy (400th anniversary of Galileo’s use of the telescope) and the last mission to Hubble Telescope, NASA invited communications professionals from their Museum Alliance Partners to join with members of the media from around the world in covering the launch of Atlantis. 

Adding to this once-in-a-lifetime event, Lakeview Museum asked if we could have an item flown into space and given to the museum for permanent display.  A few days later, we got the good news — Pekin native and STS-125 Shuttle Commander Scott Altman would carry an Illinois state flag into space for us.   

After being approved for entry into the Kennedy Space Center, I drove miles to the entrance. First impression is that the space center is huge, with miles and miles of roads and buildings amid a wildlife refuge. 

Signs along the road asked night-drivers to dim their lights to minimize confusion of the nesting sea turtles.

More than 13,000 people work at the space center, with the population swelling to  30,000 on launch days.

The astronauts fly themselves in from Houston four days before launch.

Before getting on the bus to the astronaut arrival, the first of many security checks was performed. Each time we left the press site, bomb-sniffing dogs checked all of our equipment. 

Standing on the tarmac waiting for the astronauts in 95 degree heat was a wilting experience! Complaints about the requirement that we all had to wear long pants and sturdy shoes were forgotten as a few scorpions and a snake were spotted in the grass. 

The roar of large airliners became louder as we watched them land, one by one. Five planes landed in the distance, each holding dozens of support personnel. Then, in the distance, three white jets appeared, silently circling the airfield. A few minutes later, the sound arrived. A minute later, two more appeared. One by one they landed, lining up in front of the crowd. 

Commander Altman was in the center jet, and silently signaled for his crew to climb out. After greeting officials on the tarmac, he signaled again for the crew to come out and speak to us.  Always known for his humble manner, “Scooter” Altman asked the media to not give them all of the credit for the space flight. He noted it’s the thousands of others who work here and Houston and many other places that make these flights possible. 

Closing, he shouted, “Now, let’s launch Atlantis!”

Saturday and Sunday we had briefings and tours. One tour to the massive Vehicle Assembly Building gave us a close-up look at sections of the Constellation spacecraft that will be assembled for future missions.

Tension and excitement were building by Sunday. Signs all over the space center counted down the days to launch, just in case someone wasn’t aware of what was going on. All along the Space Coast, hundreds of miles of central Florida, hotels were filling up and visitors asked locals where the best vantage point was to watch the launch from the beach. Stores, gas stations and restaurant signs touted messages wishing good luck to the crew of the Atlantis. The atmosphere was surely like the Super Bowl and World Series all rolled into one.

Thousands of visitors streamed into the huge Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center. 

Monday, the day before launch, the press site was filled nearly to capacity.  The foreign news corps swelled.

Monday evening, four buses of press were driven to a field overlooking the shuttle to photograph the craft as the sundown approached. All over the field, blast-box-covered camera’s stood ready to shoot the launch. In the distance, sleeping in the fading light, stood the Endeavour, ready to launch within days if a rescue mission was necessary.  

As the sun faded, another bus pulled up at the far side of the field. Children and grandparents, men and women climbed out and walked over to view the shuttle. It was the family of the astronauts, getting a last look as they awaited the launch that would take their loved ones in harms way. 

As darkness closed in on the shuttle, we moved to the base of the launch pad.  Massive xenon lights lit up the pad as if it was daylight. Hundreds of workers worked on the pad, truck after truck with supplies and gear drove up and down the hill to the pad. Atlantis would get no rest the night before launch. The awesome sight of the shuttle moved everyone to near silence. Most of us admitted we said a silent prayer for the Atlantis crew.

Still in the distance stood the Endeavor. Briefings spoke of the danger of this space mission, one of the most dangerous of all. 

Most shuttle flights take a crew to the International Space Station, orbiting about 200 miles above the earth. The Hubble orbits about 350 miles, amid a much larger field of space debris. At any given time, the U.S. Space Surveillance Network tracks more than 18,000 separate man-made objects and debris in space, from nuts and bolts to satellites. In February, U.S. and Russian satellites even collided, raising two clouds of debris with more than 500 pieces. 

NASA and the astronauts are closely checking any damage to the Atlantis. If the determination were made that the astronauts might be in danger of the Atlantis not being able to complete re-entry, then the decision would be made to abandon the shuttle. The Endeavour would be readied for launch within days, carrying a crew of four astronauts. 

The Atlantis carries supplies for the astronauts for 25 days, two weeks longer than the 11-day mission, so they could easily stay in space waiting for rescue.

Endeavour and Atlantis would hook up robotic arms, and the astronauts would move hand over hand to the Endeavour.

Spare space suits would be brought over to the crew members that are not conducting space walks, including Altman. He would be the last to leave the Atlantis, configuring its controls to allow NASA to control its destiny. If a determination was made that Atlantis might break apart while landing, the shuttle would be steered into a remote ocean grave.

On Tuesday, launch day, the space center was humming.

Standing at the fence, I waited with two Japanese photographers and a news reporter from Germany. Veteran reporters who have watched the crew walk dozens of times gave hints of what was to come. 

“First they bring out the helmets,” one told the crowd, “then you have about five minutes before the crew comes out.” 

In a few minutes, a line of support crew carried canvas bags and put them into the AstroVan. At precisely 10:16 a.m. the crew emerged, with Altman in the lead, waving and smiling to the crowd. 

“Thank you, Godspeed, good luck” and “let’s go,” echoed in the air.  After a last wave, they were gone, heading to the Atlantis.

Back at the press site, we watched as the crew calmly got into the shuttle. Altman was first, comfortably settling into the commander’s seat with the help of several ground crew. He flipped controls and checked with flight control. Each astronaut settled in one at a time and then the hatch closed. At last, the word came down: all systems were go.

The countdown clock silently counted down the seconds. When it hit 10 seconds, many began the countdown out loud. 

Then the sky lit up. 

Slowly Atlantis left the ground. Two seconds later, the concussion and noise hit us. 

Waiting to “feel” the liftoff, I was surprised at the sound.  You could feel and hear the launch in your bones. 

Standing on top of a car going 40 miles an hour with a cannon going off in your ear is as close as I can explain it. 

Seconds later, the shuttle was gone, only the plumes of smoke remained, wafting in the air. Even though it was gone from sight, we could still hear the roar. 

Atlantis was on the way to give the aging Hubble Telescope a face-lift, expanding its capabilities and extending its life for another five to 10 years.

About an hour later, jubilant NASA officials briefed us on the successful launch. All look forward to a successful trip. Later, a 21-inch “scuff” in tiles on the shuttle drew close attention.  While they are still keeping an eye on it, officials did not expect it to cause a problem.

In a few weeks, Lakeview Museum will get the flag now orbiting with Commander Altman.