One million spectators held their breath as the countdown clock to NASA’s last-ever space shuttle launch stopped at 31 seconds. Could it be another lightning strike? Just as suddenly, the clock started ticking again: 30, 29, 28.
As the countdown reached ten seconds, the crowd started to count out loud with the clock: ten, nine, eight... the ground started to vibrate like an earthquake… three, two... a cloud of smoke started to form on the sides of the rocket ONE...liftoff!
Slowly, the four-and-a-half million pound machine lifted off the ground underneath a gigantic white flame. The rocket rapidly sped up, leaving a trail of hydrochloric acid towering through the sky before vaporizing a cloud as it disappeared from sight. The crowd cheered. This was the most awe-inspiring sight I had ever seen.
This moment was the culmination of a week of uncertainty. Would the launch even happen? NASA advised only a 30 percent chance of launch. Just the day before, thunderstorms and lightning threatened to doom the flight to at least a couple days’ delay, perhaps up to 10 days due to scheduling difficulties. The first lightning strike hit the water tower just 515 feet from the launch pad; the second struck the beach area northeast of the pad.
But today, almost magically, just before launch, the clouds opened and a blue patch of sky made the 10-minute launch window suddenly look feasible. It was an exciting moment for the Amgen staff there as part of a nonclinical experiment exploring bone loss associated with space flight; a problem during human space missions.
What you see on television doesn’t even begin to capture the overwhelming sensory experience as you witness what looks like a giant volcanic explosion with a tiny rocket atop, four astronauts and 30 Amgen mice onboard. How can human beings do this? It never looked like this in the movies, even the good ones.
But let’s rewind. This was a very long week.
I arrived on Tuesday, July 5, at Cocoa Beach, about 30 miles from the Kennedy Space Center, with Amgen’s principal investigator on the UCB-partnered experiment. Two other Amgen scientists who were working on the experiment were delayed at Los Angeles Airport and had to take a redeye flight to Orlando and go straight to the NASA Space Life Sciences Laboratory to finalize the experiment. On Thursday they loaded the capsules that would house the experiment for the next 16 days onto the shuttle’s payload. Here are some extracts from my diary during that eventful week:
Thursday, July 07 | One Day Before Launch
Things are getting very exciting here at NASA today. The Amgen payload has been loaded onto the NASA van and is on its way to the shuttle. More than 750,000 people are expected to show up for the launch tomorrow. However, they will not be allowed onto the base and will watch it from the surrounding areas. Our Amgen scientists are on a high. This is a culmination of a lot of work and late nights. Still only a 30 percent chance of launch tomorrow due to the weather. I got drenched in a downpour coming here. Fingers crossed…
Friday, July 08 | Launch Day!
4:32 AM: Email from Bill Salvin, communications commander for NASA: “We are tanking now. We are going to try to fly today.”
5:39 AM: Watching weather report in hotel. Still only a 30 percent chance of launch.
6:19 AM: Leaving hotel. Lobby is busy. Coaches are outside picking people up. Atmosphere is electric.
7:29 AM: Lots of traffic and delays. Cars parked all along the roads from Cocoa Beach. An estimated one million people have shown up.
8:04 AM: Finally got in through the second security check point past the public access area now so things are much quieter, less traffic. Going to head up to Vehicle Assembly Building shortly-that’s the closest view of takeoff. More than 2,000 journalists have shown up.
8:05 AM: Astronauts' last physical check, moving to shuttle now. Still 30 percent chance of launch.
8:26 AM: Shuttle commander strapped into shuttle. Second astronaut being strapped in now. Last two remaining.
8:34 AM: Weather is starting to look better. If it rains, launch will be postponed. Because of the speed of the rocket, rain drops act like bullets and knock the tiles off the orbiter.
8:43 AM: Local news is talking about our experiment.
9:06 AM: All weather criteria are a go.
9:10 AM: Crew is all onboard. Doing communications check with Houston. All the mission abort sites have to be clear as well, which includes Spain, Houston, and California.
9:17 AM: Hatch closure.
9:27 AM: Cabin pressurization has begun.
11:29 AM: LAUNCH!
AMAZING! Probably the most amazing experience I’ve ever had. Launch clock stopped at 31 seconds … there was a moment of breathlessness and then it all happened.
Saturday, July 9 | Home
Probably only slept 12 hours in the last five days but I am on such a high. Can’t wait to get home and tell all my friends. They probably won’t believe me. Luckily I’ve got the NASA security badge they gave me with my photo on it.
This trip was the most amazing experience of my life. Although only a few of us from Amgen attended the event, hundreds of Amgen staff worked on this program for over a decade; they certainly deserve the credit.
As I reflected on the events of the week, I realized that pioneering science is alive and well at Amgen.
An Astronautic Thank You
Astronaut Cady Coleman at the Kennedy Space Center thanks Amgen for the work we are doing.
Elton Greig of Amgen’s Corporate Communications department attended last week’s launch of the final space shuttle mission, which included an Amgen experiment in its payload. The experiment was conducted in partnership with UCB.