The Legend of Atlantis…
I’ve had a fascination with space from a very early age, thanks to a healthy appetite for reading and TV/Movie shows that featured space (Doctor Who, Thunderbirds, Terrahawks, Star Wars, etc. etc.). Two of my earliest serious memories of space were (1) a space pop-up book with moving galaxies, a pop-up telescope, and many other cool features that gradually decayed the more I read it… and (2) a trip to the London Planetarium, which is a simply amazing place — if you haven’t visited – I heartily recommend.
I’d never visited Florida as a child. My parents aren’t the “Disney” type, and whilst at the time it’s always something you think of negatively, I can now fully endorse their position, and even though I’ve grown into an adult that’s visited there a number of times, I’ve always done so without children. I’ve seen my share of exhausted, cranky kids who really are too young to appreciate the experience they’re having. By the time we were teenagers, my Mum had stopped flying and so it fell to a young travelling 20-something Dan to experience Florida for the first time. Since then, most of my trips to Florida have been on the back of work.
One of the more positive side-effects of working remotely is that a large majority of my team are based in Melbourne, Florida. Apart from the good year-round weather, seafood and proximity to Orlando (and Disney), it’s also a short 40 minute drive from one of my all-time favorite places in the world. I am referring to the NASA Kennedy Space Center.
Over the course of my years working for a Florida-based team, I’ve visited the Space Center a number of times, including once with my wife, Charlene. Until a couple of weeks ago, the most amazing visit was to witness STS-129: the launch of Atlantis on November 16th 2009. I was able to stand in the Rocket Garden at the Visitor Complex to watch Atlantis blast off to deliver parts to the International Space Station. I was simply blown away by a number of things: the sight of Atlantis rocketing into the sky, the sound, even from 10 miles away from the pad, and the overriding sense of love and family that each person standing there felt towards both the crew and the craft that was hurtling them into space.
So when I heard that the Shuttle program was ending, and that these amazing craft were no longer going to be in service, I felt a deep sense of sadness.
Skip forward to just a few weeks ago – early January 2012. I find out that I’m going to be taking a trip to Florida, so I check (as I regularly do) the Kennedy Space Center website to see if there was anything special going on, and I see…. “Come and look inside the Vehicle Assembly Building!!”. So not only was I super excited to see inside the VAB, where Atlantis, like every other orbiter, was assembled prior to launch, but another exciting prospect loomed. Although not guaranteed, the Kennedy website suggested that, at certain times, a Shuttle Orbiter may be inside, being prepared and decommissioned before getting sent to various space museums across the USA. I book a ticket. Very quicky. Very, very quickly!
Skip forward to Saturday February 4th, 2012. I’m on the “Up Close Tour”, and the guide drops a BIG hint that there was indeed an orbiter in the VAB. I’m a big softy at the best of times, but when I heard that, my heart jumped into my throat and stayed there until I arrived at the VAB. It would be a disservice to the VAB to not spend time talking about it. It’s big. The quote from Douglas Adams regarding “space” in the Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy sums it up pretty well:
“Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemists, but that’s just peanuts to space.”
It’s huge. Not only is it huge, it’s simply impossible to shoot. I must have taken 20-30 shots, in an attempt to later stitch them up into some kind of “mega image”. No matter how much I try, I simply can’t. The pipework, scaffolding and large expanses of glass must be the worst kind of surface to try and image-stitch. The best I could manage was this 2-sheet stich using an app I’m trialling called “DoubleTake” for the Mac:..
Okay – so it’s big. The white box at the bottom of the screen is a HUGE door, and the small dark spec in the door is a PERSON!! It stands at a whopping 525ft (160m) tall, and at one point in time was the largest building by volume in the world. It’s easy to see why, and hard to see how anything could beat it!
And there, nestled in one corner, behind a gate, was….. Atlantis. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so emotional about seeing an inanimate object before. I kept getting something in my eye. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it…
Some pieces (including the front section), were still removed, being processed and cleaned before being re-fitted. It’s odd, because – as a regular to the space center – I’m used to seeing the replica of the orbiter in the Visitor Complex, next to the Shuttle Launch Simulator. I wonder how many people have walked inside it, thinking that it was a real shuttle. But when you see a real shuttle, an actual craft that’s been all the way out of our atmosphere, and back again, many times, you really appreciate just how much toll it takes. It’s not all white and shiny and glossy. It’s worn and battered. But it stood proud, as if it would have taken another hundred crews into space if it only had been allowed to. And so it initially saddened me, that such a proud machine was now sat there, retired and redundant. Until you remember, of course, that these orbiters are about to become immortal. Preserved for all to see in space museums across the US. And the biggest honor of all? The orbiter that gets to remain in its spiritual home at the Kennedy Space Center? Atlantis :)
I was (thanks to some rather dubious manoeuvring), the first person to get to see Atlantis. I was the last person standing there at the end, still transfixed on the sight before me. On the second request to head back to the bus I grudgingly obeyed…
They say “you should never meet your heroes”. On this case, they were totally wrong. I met Atlantis, and she was awesome.