What Is It Like to View a Space Shuttle Launch?

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After weeks of delays, this morning we finally witnessed the final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour. Today, at 8:56 a.m. EST, the crew of the Endeavour, with Mark Kelly (husband to Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords) in command, lifted off at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The first scheduled launch was scrubbed in late April due to a problem with one of the orbiter's auxillary power units.

This morning's launch marked the last flight for Endeavour. The 14-day mission will take the astronauts to the International Space Station and back. The National Air and Space Museum had originally planned to air the launch live in its Moving Beyond Earth gallery, as it did with the shuttle Discovery's launch and landing earlier this year, but because of the rescheduled morning launch time, that wasn't possible. We spoke with Roger Launius, the museum's senior curator in the division of space history, anyway to hear what he has to say about the viewing experience:

"The thrill of a shuttle launch is palpable, in no small part because of the immense destructive power totally under human control. The power of a big rocket's launch is daunting. Impressive over the television, in person it is overwhelming, uniquely magical. Novelist Ray Bradbury once commented: 'Too many of us have lost the passion and emotion of the remarkable things we've done in space. Let us not tear up the future, but rather again heed the creative metaphors that render space travel a religious experience. When the blast of a rocket launch slams you against the wall and all the rust is shaken off your body, you will hear the great shout of the universe and the joyful crying of people who have been changed by what they've seen.' No one leaves a space shuttle unchanged. The experience is thrilling and transforming.

The communal nature of the experience is powerful as everyone stops and watches it in rapt attention for the eight-plus minutes it takes to reach orbit. Some are holding their breath. Others are ebullient. No one is unmoved."

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