STS-133: Discovery's Final Launch | Florida Photography

After much anticipation and many, many changes to the expected launch date, we finally got to see the last launch of space shuttle Discovery - mission STS-133.  It was a truly awesome thing to witness... even from 7.5 miles away.

We had tickets to view the launch from the Visitor Complex at Kennedy.  The weather was perfect.  They had screens and speakers set up so we could watch the goings-on at the command center there at Cape Canaveral and see what was happening inside the shuttle as the astronauts were getting strapped in and they were sealing the hatch via the white room.  We could hear the comms between Kennedy, Houston and Discovery and there was also a commentator to clarify some of what they were saying and to provide us with interesting facts throughout.

There were a couple of moments that had everyone nervous that the shuttle might not launch, especially since we'd been waiting for it for several months.  There was a small crack to one of the insulating tiles around the hatch, which it seems that they managed to repair in just a few minutes, and then there was an issue on the range.  It was down to T-5 before the range office gave a 'go' for launch.  Oh the anticipation!

Once it started getting close, you could feel the excited energy in the crowd.  It seemed that everyone knew the pre-launch milestones - removing the cap over the giant external tank, flooding the pad, igniting the sparklers and main engine ignition.  At every step, a cheer rose through the crowd. :)  Finally, after so many false starts and changed dates and trips back and forth to Kennedy, there was liftoff.  Discovery was going to space.

It took a moment for us to see the shuttle over the tree line after launch (we were 7.5 miles away), but once it happened, we could see it turning into the correct orientation (shuttle side down, tank side up) and watch it rise into the sky.  The process was slower than I had anticipated, which was quite nice and gave me a moment to appreciate it and not worry too much if I had one setting that was not quite right on the camera.  Mind you, within moments it was traveling thousands of miles per hour, but I was expecting it to only be a few seconds before it was completely out of sight.  

It was probably 1/3 to 1/2 of the way to the highest point in the sky visible from where we were when the sound hit us.  You could hear it rumbling through the miles of swamp and forest on its way to us. When it hit us, it was almost like a wave or a breeze.  You could feel the power of the sound as it passed by you.  Everyone shouted and cheered when it came to us.  

After it left Kennedy's airspace, the SRBs dropped off.  At that point, Kennedy issued the 'negative return' comm, and we could hear Discovery respond.  It was at that point (with more cheering) that all of us who had been waiting for this for months and months finally exhaled and realized that the launch really happened.  Discovery was on its way.  The photo below does show the SRBs falling away from the shuttle.  If you look closely at the bottom of the image you'll see a little V-shape with a bright spot in the middle.

Probably the most emotional moment for me was as Discovery was passing through the atmosphere and heading into orbit.  There was a camera between the ET and the shuttle facing down towards earth.  You could see the water below.  You could see earth from this shuttle which had been right here moments ago.  As the shuttle reached space, the camera showed the separation between the ET and the shuttle, and we watched it drift off into space.  I still get tingly thinking about that.

Check out the videos at nasa.gov or on youtube.  You'll be able to see this moment and several others from the launch day.

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