Tuesday, February 9, 2010

End of an era

Space shuttle Endeavour streaks toward space in the last of the program's night time launches.

Photos and story by Clay Henderson, valued friend and colleague:

There was no stopping me from getting up early this morning to see the last night launch of the space shuttle. I really don't know how many night launches I've seen but have seen most of them since seeing the first in 1983. They have all been memorable events, even those from our front yard a mere 25 miles away.

That first night launch was still in the infancy of the shuttle program. A bad weather system came through that summer night and we loaded up on our old sailboat around midnight to make our way south through Mosquito Lagoon to get within ten miles of Pad 39. Because the weather had been so bad, we were the only boat in the lagoon, lonely witnesses to the first night launch of the space shuttle. That first launch was around 2:30 in the morning and I remember seeing something not unlike a sunrise in the middle of the night. The pictures we took that night, with old slide film, captured colors we had not seen in nature. It was quite a site.

Obviously what is special about a night launch is the way it turns night into day. The orange fire ball streaks upward on a arc as it not only makes its way to space but across the Atlantic. About 90 seconds into the flight, the solid rocket boosters which launched the shuttle flame out and are discarded over the ocean. Two orange flames drop toward the ocean while an object which appears to be the brightest star in the sky moves on. At this point you are seeing the flames from the shuttle engines moving away and it makes its way across the ocean it appears to set toward the horizon. On some clear and cold nights, we've seen the shuttle star make it's way all across the Atlantic while appearing to set in the east.

It's also fun watching the birds and fishes react to the shuttle. The night herons are nocturnal species who roost in the mangroves during the day and feed along the shore by night. At every night launch I've watched the surprised night herons stop feeding and figuratively look at their watches and think this was a short work day. Then they take flight back to their roosts. The rhythm of their day was shortened.

The mullet go crazy with every night launch. A few minutes after the launch, the land rumbles with the shock wave from the multi-million pounds of thrust. It's like a mini-tremor or as close as we get in Florida. Apparently, this shock wave is also felt by the fish in the water because without fail the schooling mullet start jumping out of the water and splashing all over each other in reaction to the abnormal vibration.

The penultimate night launch was last August and I joined a few friends at Haulover Canal to paddle in kayaks out into the lagoon. As awesome as the launch was the blue-green energy of the bioluminesce in the water. We positioned ourselves with several other kayakers against the jetties at the entrance to Haulover, with no other boats between us and the brightly illuminated pad only ten miles away. I think this was the best night launch ever at midnight on a full moon with a clear sky. It was a night I'll never forget.

For almost 30 years, the launch of the space shuttle has been a regular feature around these parts but the night launches are ones we remember the most. To see the bright flame of the rocket turn night into day and then disappear into the blackness of space is the closest any us will get to touching the sky.

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