Notes from a Space Shuttle Launch

Good morning from the Kennedy Space Center, where there is expectation in the air. The weather is typical for Florida -- clear, brilliant, with a small chance of drenching thunderstorms. The space shuttle Endeavour fairly glows in pictures from NASA cameras near the launch pad, though from here near the control center, three miles to the west, the pad is backlit, a stubby grey mass on the horizon.

Before dawn the six astronauts of Endeavour came to a stop at the launch control center, riding their silver van in a convoy of about a dozen vehicles. Lights flashed. A helicopter circled overhead -- strikingly low, lower than the roof of the 500-foot Vehicle Assembly Building next door. There was something stirring about it, a bit of majesty in the predawn Florida chill.

It has now been 30 years since the very first shuttle launch, flown by astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen on the shuttle Columbia on April 12, 1981. That was STS-1. This is STS-134. After Columbia was lost in 2003, and President Bush ordered the shuttles retired, the last flight was supposed to be STS-133, and this flight was never supposed to have happened. But there was a $2 billion experiment -- the Alpha-Magnetic Spectrometer -- in danger of going to waste. Since it may offer clues to the makeup of the universe, and since NASA wanted to keep thousands of shuttle workers employed for as long as possible, STS-134 was added, and then STS-135 this July. After that the shuttles will be history.

NASA's quest for the next way to launch astronauts has come to a halt for now, bogged down by costs and Washington politics. The Obama administration has invited private industry to start flying astronauts to the space station, though no company is ready. NASA keeps offering variations on its now-canceled Constellation project, but they've mostly been shot down.

I said the morning was brilliant; now a deck of clouds has moved over us. The old hands have seen this before. A hundred and thirty-three times before.

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