Videographers David Gonzales, Kurt Johnson and Mike Deep filmed the final launch of the Space Shuttle from the Kennedy Space Center Press Site. The team used multiple cameras along with a high definition stereo audio recording device to capture the sights and sounds as Atlantis thundered into orbit. The goal was to provide the closest launch experience for the viewer without actually being there.
A Space Shuttle launch is a spectacle that will never again be seen. The sequence begins with a tight shot of the pad in the final seconds of the count. As the 3 Space Shuttle Main Engines ignite they flash water from the sound suppression water system into steam, sending a plume billowing away. The entire stack rocks a couple of feet before settling back vertical. The Solid Rocket boosters ignite, launching out a second plume and lifting the 4.5 million pound stack off the ground. Spectators erupt into cheers and the shutters of thousands of press cameras click away.
The fiery exhaust from the SRBs is traveling at many times the speed of sound and sends visible shock-waves through the plume. You can watch as massive condensation clouds appear and vanish with pressure waves in the humid Florida air. They flicker in and out of existence many times a second. Smoke completely envelops pad 39A.
Atlantis then begins a roll program to provide a reference horizon for her crew and orient her antennas towards the earth for 2 way communication. The sound begins to arrive at the Press Site. An initial building roar is heard as the main engines were fired up followed by the popping, crackling thunder from the Solid Rocket Boosters. For an observer it almost seems as if the air itself is being torn apart. It vibrates your chest a bit and you can feel the sound all around you.
The glowing plume behind the shuttle is nearly as bright as the sun to the eye and is actually a bit difficult to look at. It extends many times longer than the shuttle stack itself. It seems to flow out of the stack like some kind of fiery waterfall before cooling into a smokey plume. The Space Shuttle then broke through the cloud deck, illuminating the clouds one final time before disappearing from view.
Despite being out of sight, you can still follow the Shuttle’s journey. A dark trail becomes visible on the cloud deck as the plume casts an enormous shadow below. A short time later the SRB’s are jettisoned and Atlantis continues to space on her final expedition. The billowing plume expanded and slowly drifted Northward. It was a magnificent sight that will never quite be seen again.
One of the spectators you can hear in the video is a member of a team that was flying mice on STS-135. Her group was testing an experimental drug to see if bone loss due to weightlessness could be reduced while on orbit. The results of experiments and research conducted during the 30 years of the Space Shuttle Program will undoubtedly help the next program to continue the journey.