Five years ago today I witnessed the most transcendent moment of my life.
I don’t have a faith or a religion, so I’m often reluctant to describe things as “transcendent”; I don’t want to speak to an experience that’s not my own. But 5 years ago today, I witnessed one of the most amazing moments of my life, something that transcends anything but life milestones like my wedding or the birth of my child.
I got to witness the final launch of the final space shuttle, Atlantis, right from Kennedy Space Center. Mission STS-135.
Watching that space shuttle take off was, unquestionably, one of the most emotional and moving events of my life. I am not embarrassed at all to say that it brought me to tears.
Some of that emotion was inspired by having simply grown up as a geek. While older folks had Apollo, the Space Shuttle was “our” space program, with the earliest tests and launches being among my earliest memories, just as I was discovering my love for space and science and nerding out.
On the day before the launch, we got a chance to visit with staff from across NASA, including the opportunity to talk to a few astronauts. But while it was a thrill to meet people who’d actually been to space, what moved me most was the more anonymous staffers who had less visible jobs at NASA. Their pride in their work was palpable, with a passion undiminished even over the decades that some of them had worked there. A few told me they’d been around for the first shuttle launch, thirty years earlier.
While we heard their stories, they took us on a grand tour of the facility, where we even got to approach incredibly close to the shuttle as it sat on the launch pad. We nervously waited to hear whether the weather would hold out for launch the next morning.
When it was finally time for the countdown, they brought us all to a grassy field that was as close as civilians could get to the launch tower. As the countdown commenced in earnest, the thought that kept returning to my head was, “This is what we can do together.”
It took the love of so many people—thousands!— over so many years to create this, the most amazing machine that I’ve ever seen in my life. The most impressive and glorious display of scientific knowledge that I could imagine.
And when that rocket takes off, you feel the launch in your chest. Your ears hear a sound like a distorted speaker that’s in overdrive. But it’s not the sound, really, so much as the physical sensation. What you feel is the force of countless people’s optimism.
I know there were many flaws in the shuttle program. I saw the quiet grief of those who had worked at NASA and had lost shuttles over the years. I knew the technology behind that shuttle was ancient by contemporary technological standards. But even on the last day that it would ever take off, that enormous machine was purely magical.
What I saw when I watched a Space Shuttle soar into the sky was simply a reminder of what is possible. We can do amazing things! I know because I’ve seen it with my own eyes.