Atlantis Reaches Orbit; Houston Takes Over

Originally published on July 8, 2011 1:56 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And now let's go to NPR's Wade Goodwyn. He is standing by at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. That is the headquarters of the Space Program.

And Wade, what are you learning there?

WADE GOODWYN: Well, I mean, we've all watched the liftoff, as everyone has. You know, everyone's excited. There are - the place is packed with families, NASA families who've come out to watch this last launch. The auditorium here is so full that the fire marshal had to come out and is walking around with a worried look on his face. But I think they've decided that this is an unusual circumstance, and everyone's going to be allowed to sit and watch. And it's really quite, quite a wonderful day.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

There must be, though, Wade, wonderful and - especially there in Houston -bittersweet.

GOODWYN: It is bittersweet. I mean, I - the one word that comes to mind when people are talking to me, they talk about how proud they are to be associated with for 30 years or 25 years. I mean, many people here have been with the program for most of their working lives. And this is coming to an end, so it's an end of an era.

INSKEEP: I want to mention the names again of the people who are onboard that craft. And everything looks normal, based on everything we're hearing from NASA, everything we're seeing on our screens and that people are able to see from the ground at Cape Canaveral in Titusville, Florida. Everything looks like a normal shuttle flight. Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandra Magnus, Rex Walheim are on board.

We're going to stay with you - we'll mention for our local stations - we're going to stay with you for about another five minutes on this story, have some discussions here for some astronauts and wait for news. But quite frankly, we're hoping to have very little, if any more news to report. We're hoping for a very normal launch, here.

And let's go back to Nell Greenfieldboyce, who is on the ground at Cape Canaveral.

Nell, I think you were the closest of any of us to this. What was it like?

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: It was loud. I couldn't here you all talking at all. It was loud, loud, loud, the roar like you would not believe. You didn't just hear it. You felt it. It sounded like a flag, but flapping very, very, very, very fast.

And there was this huge column of smoke rising up into the air, and then the shuttle rocketed through the clouds. And then we really couldn't see anymore. There was just left this huge column of smoke going up into the cloud cover. People were cheering. The light was incredible. Even though it's broad daylight here, the light was so, so bright. It was an amazing sight, and I think most people here are going to remember this for the rest of their lives.

MONTAGNE: And before the launch - and glad, of course, we got back to the launch. We - you have a guest there with you, Nell. Why don't we...

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's right. I'm...

MONTAGNE: Go ahead.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I'm sitting here with astronaut Shannon Walker. And so perhaps she could tell us some of her feelings, as a member of the community that's very involved in the Space Program, obviously.

Ms. SHANNON WALKER (Astronaut): Well, I just, like - oh, I'm sorry. Go ahead.

MONTAGNE: And Shannon, before you do, actually, tell us just briefly. You know, you've been with NASA for quite some time - just a little thumbnail.

Ms. WALKER: That's correct. I've been with NASA over 24 years, and I've been an astronaut for about nine, I think. So seeing a shuttle launch is a hugely emotional event. I sit here and I watch it and I watch my friends go off into space. And as Nell said, it's - you feel it. You see it. It's all-encompassing, and I still have goose bumps from watching this launch.

INSKEEP: And we're going to talk a little bit more, here, but I just want to recap for people who just may be joining us, that the shuttle Atlantis launched this morning a little bit past the time that was scheduled, but it was scheduled for about 11:26 this morning. It wasn't too far from that. There was a hold just at the end, with 31 seconds left on the clock. A technical problem was fixed, and they were able to move on. And 4.5 million pounds of metal, fuel and human beings were flung into space.

We're going to continue this discussion in a moment. You are listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

And let's pick up once again, Nell Greenfieldboyce was on the ground with an astronaut there at Cape Canaveral. You were saying that the feeling is kind of hard to compare to anything else.

Ms. WALKER: That's correct. It's emotionally overwhelming. It's so immense. It's hard to describe what it's really like to be here in person to see a shuttle launch.

MONTAGNE: And Shannon Walker, I gather you grew up in Houston, and that you were in high school when the very first shuttle flew. Do you - did that shape, in a sense, your life?

Ms. WALKER: Oh, I'm sure it had a huge effect on it. That's correct. I did grow up in Houston. I was four years old when we first walked on the moon. And it was probably about that time that the seed was planted that I wanted to be an astronaut. And so having NASA on my own backyard certainly made me always aware of what was going on and what we were doing in space.

INSKEEP: Shannon Walker, bear with us for just a moment, here. I want to come back to you. First, I want to stitch Joe Palca, NPR's Joe Palca back into the conversation. We've been watching video feeds. Joe's been listening to the NASA feed.

What's happening now, Joe?

PALCA: Well, there's less than a minute of powered flight to go. That means that the engines will cut off normally. They - everything seems to be on track for a normal orbit. It's travelling - the spacecraft is travelling more than 15,000 miles per hour at this point, and when the main engines cut off, the large tank that was filled with 500,000 gallons of fuel will be jettisoned and the mission starts, essentially.

INSKEEP: And as we watch this shuttle from a camera on board the shuttle, it's astonishing just to see the shadows of the sun move across this as the shuttle turns a little bit in space and goes into orbit.

And Shannon Walker, I wanted to ask you what it feels like at this moment to be at that moment.

Ms. WALKER: Oh, it's a terribly exciting feeling. Of course, the crew is concentrating on the systems, making sure everything is going fine. But at the same time, they're very excited that their mission is underway.

INSKEEP: And now let's go to - do we have NPR's Greg Allen still on the line? From Titusville, Florida, let's go to Greg and let's see what kind of response there's been there, Greg, as we - we should mention, by the way, the fuel tank has now fallen away, falling away from the shuttle here, which is now continuing on into orbit as the tank drops.

What's going on?

GREG ALLEN: Well, it's astonishing to me. I mean, the camera image is from the tank, and you can see the orbiter sail away. I guess it's not sailing away. The tank is falling.

MONTAGNE: It's floating away, there, Joe. It's, like, floating up, floating up.

ALLEN: It's gliding up...

MONTAGNE: It's so - what do you call - graceful.

INSKEEP: We've just got about 10, 15 seconds for Greg Allen.

Greg, what are you seeing, where you are?

ALLEN: Well, I'm just telling you, Steve, that everybody here - there's a huge crowd that just went wild when they started making announcements that it was going to go off. And then when it went up, it just went - just - the crowd just went ecstatic. And then after about 40 seconds, you started to get this rumble. The sound - took that long for it to get here. And that's one of the most impressive things about being here, that delayed reaction, seeing it go up.

And I have some people here who would be happy to talk to you about it, if you'd like.

INSKEEP: We may be able to do that a little bit later on in the morning. We're going to cut away here in just about 30 seconds. We'd like to mention that the shuttle has now dropped away its solid fuel rocket boosters and has also dropped away that giant rust-red fuel tank. They will all fall into the ocean and be recovered, and the Shuttle Atlantis is on its way into orbit with Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim. And according to everything we know so far, it has been a normal launch, the final launch of the Shuttle Program Atlantis, on its way into orbit.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.