On the final stretch of our drive to Cape Canaveral, Fla., spectators armed with binoculars and long-lens cameras were camped out everywhere for a chance to catch their own personal view of the historic moment.
By that point, I was afraid the only launch I was going to see that day was the embarkation of the Carnival Sensation, the ship taking us to The Bahamas.
My concern stemmed from the cloudy condition and my awareness of NASA’s tendency to air on the side of caution — and with good reason.
With the silver anniversary of the Challenger disaster still in our rearview mirror, the inherent danger of space travel was fresh in my mind. Since I knew NASA’s launch team needed no reminder of the tragic possibilities of any critical mistake, I prepared myself for the letdown of a postponed launch.
After returning from our cruise I learned that the historic flight was nearly delayed that afternoon. The near holdup was reportedly caused by a computer glitch.
The farewell launch of Discovery was not the only flight that day that had a glitch. The friendly woman who checked us in for our cruise told my wife Elisha and I that the cruise ship’s launch might be delayed because of a late flight transporting some of our fellow passengers to Florida.
I was happy to hear about the delay since we were scheduled to depart several minutes before the Discovery was launched. I wanted to be as close as possible to the launch pad when the booster rockets roared.
I waited for the liftoff in a crowd of strangers who looked across the bay. None of us were certain of what was about to happen.
Then, we saw the smoke and fire, which prompted cheers among us all. I think I even gave my wife a high-five as Discovery began its 39th — and final — flight.
Those clouds may not have ruined our opportunity to watch the last launch of Discovery, but it shortened the show for many of us, like a theater curtain being closed before the completion of a play’s final act. However, a bald spot of blue allowed us to see one final glimpse of the red glare, igniting another outburst of merriment from my fellow vacationers.
This wasn’t the first time Discovery has made us cheer. Remember that this was the craft that led us back into space after we lost the Challenger, and lost with it a generation’s confidence in the future of space exploration.
It was also Discovery that put the Hubble Telescope in the skies, giving us breathtaking glimpses of the undiscovered world around us.
Unfortunately, the rocket ride that might have served as a metaphorical birthday candle was missed by my mother-in-law. She had been told she would have an excellent view of the launch from the private deck attached to her cabin. Unfortunately, since the ship had not set sail yet, she was on the wrong side of the boat to see the spaceship.
As Discovery continued to make its escape from Earth’s gravitational field, the engines of the cruise ship were ignited and we began our own mission to escape many of the worries and concerns of our daily lives.
The shuttle is expected to be retired to The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum when it returns from the heavens Wednesday. I hope this allows me to one day see it again and think back on the day I saw it blast off one last time.
David Lazenby is the news editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle. He can be reached at 221-2840 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.