As NASA’s Space Shuttle program winds down to a close this November after 33 years and 134 launches, I was lucky enough to catch the 132nd launch this past Friday, which was also the final flight of Atlantis, one of three remaining operational orbiting vehicles in the fleet.
BAY STATE BLAST-OFF The Atlantis takes off for the last time, carrying the author’s Cohasset-raised uncle Stephen Bowen.
But I didn’t haul ass down to Florida as a space groupie. Rather, my uncle, Stephen Bowen, a native son of Cohasset, is an astronaut. I flew down with other members of my family to lend support as he took his second flight into space, a trip with five other astronauts to deliver new parts to the International Space Station (ISS).
NASA gives family and friends of the astronauts free admission to the Kennedy Space Center during the week of the launch. Our first day started when a tour bus took us from the center out to a field nearby the launch pad, where the astronauts come to say goodbye. Because they’re quarantined days before they are propelled beyond Earth’s atmosphere and into space, we were put behind a rope where everyone waves and takes pictures and says goodbye for about 10 minutes.
Later that day, we attended a banquet in Stephen’s honor. Right when we walked in, we saw a cardboard cut-out of him in his orange jumpsuit for photo-taking. Mike Massimino, another astronaut who will not be taking part in this flight (he is, however, the first astronaut to tweet in space), was there to help out and answer questions.
On the day of the launch, NASA provided buses for family and friends of the astronauts to be taken to Banana Creek, a viewing area about three miles from the launch pads. We gathered on bleachers and awaited the countdown. Once again, Astro Mike was there to answer questions. A PA speaker was set up so that we could hear mission control go over final launch inspections and procedures, as well as to keep us updated on any delays. There was talk of a cloud cover delaying the launch, but when 2:20 pm approached, the sky cleared.
As the crowd counted down the final 10 seconds, I turned around to see my grandparents gripping each other’s hands tightly. At liftoff, some cheered; others watched in awe as the shuttle rose into the air atop a humungous plume of smoke. My hands were shaking as I tried to photograph and get video of the launch simultaneously.
About 10 minutes after the shuttle took flight, we were rushed back to the buses to try to beat some of the traffic that Cape Canaveral experiences on launch days.
Now that the excitement of the launch is over, my family has become glued to the television. It feels like Apollo 13 — minus the crisis part. Florida has a NASA TV channel that switches between mission control and cameras aboard the shuttle. We watched together as the Atlantis docked with the ISS and the astronauts floated into the space station. Over the next 12 days of the STS-132 mission, all of our eyes will be on NASA TV online, keeping up with everything in general and watching my uncle on his two scheduled space walks in particular.
Stephen gained some measure of fame on his first trip, Space Shuttle Flight 126, back in 2008, when he took three spacewalks for a total of nearly 20 hours. Our family feels like we can trump any boozy bar boaster. How can you beat, “Yeah, well, my uncle is a damn astronaut!”?
To see live coverage of my uncle (and those other astronauts, too), go to nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/index.html?param=public.