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Shuttle launch a show like no other (with photo gallery)

To view a photo gallery from the launch of the space shuttle Endeavour, click HERE.

It only really hit me an hour or so later, as my wife and I stopped at a local Wal-Mart outside Titusville, Fla., to pick up a few things we’d forgotten for our vacation.

As I was walking back to the electronics section to look for a camera cable, a smile just came across my face: The space shuttle had just blasted off from Cape Canaveral, and we were there to see it.

We watched the shuttle blast off from a bridge in Titusville, getting up early on our vacation to get there. But the trip ended up being about more than the shuttle; we even got to see a pre-show from the Animal Kingdom. From our spot on the bridge, we saw a bird flying with a fish it’d just plucked from the water and a manatee lumbering along the shoreline, not to mention the big, occupied osprey nest on a light pole.

All that came before the launch of the space shuttle Endeavour on the morning of May 16, on its two-week-plus mission to the International Space Station. That mission -- and the shuttle’s working life -- is set to end shortly after 2:30 a.m. Wednesday as it lands at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral.

The conclusion of Endeavour’s mission leaves only one shuttle flight left, the final scheduled flight of Atlantis in July.

It had been a dream of mine since growing up as a child in the 1980s Midwest to see a shuttle liftoff, ever since mimicking liftoffs in my bedroom with a plastic shuttle toy, the one with the detachable booster rockets and fuel tank. (Later came the baseball dream, of seeing my favorite player as a child, Andre Dawson, inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. That was fulfilled last July. Click here)

But it was also one of those childhood dreams that is put aside and all but forgotten over the years. It stayed forgotten even after we booked our trip. We booked it for baseball reasons: This is the final year for the Florida Marlins' old stadium, and we picked the week of May 14-21, because my team, the Cubs, were in town.

It was only after we booked the trip that the thought crossed my mind about the shuttle — and the limited number of remaining launches. I checked and was disheartened, as expected: the next launch was scheduled for early April.

But I kept checking as the launch date kept getting put off and my hopes kept getting raised. Had I checked before booking the trip, we would have booked earlier. Thankfully, we didn’t. As it turned out, it got delayed right into our trip window.

So, sometime after 4 a.m. on May 16, my wife and I got into our rental car and headed north from our base near Jupiter, Fla. It ended up being totally worth the early hour. Even my wife, who’s not an early riser, ended up not having a problem with it.

That’s because the whole experience ended up being more than just a shuttle launch. For those observant enough, there was an entire pre-show.

I’d done some research beforehand, and a website suggested a new bridge near Titusville as a prime location to watch the launch. We made our way there and stopped about midway up the bridge, getting there 90 minutes to two hours before launch time.

As we waited in anticipation, we got to watch other flights, most notably from the bird that had just snatched a fish from the water and carried it over those waiting on the bridge, almost like a trophy.
The bird even landed on a nearby utility pole to have his breakfast, and maybe wait for the launch himself.

But there was also the big osprey nest on another utility pole, with other birds flying around -- one snuck into a photo from after the launch of the dissipating shuttle trail. In the water, there was even more, like the manatee lumbering along near the shore. Someone pointed it out for everyone; we’d have missed it otherwise.

All that came before the main event: the shuttle launch. As the time came, we listened to the countdown on a scanner, my wife running the video camera while I snapped pictures. Smoke started billowing from the far-off launch pad and the shuttle lifted off.

It was really a cool moment.

I’d even forgotten there was no sound. About 12 miles away, it took the sound some time to get to us. When it finally did, it was almost a shock, but that rumble we were hearing was the shuttle making its way to space.

Our line of sight was good, but low-hanging clouds quickly obscured the vehicle as it ascended. Even that turned out cool, though; the shadow of the shuttle’s trail showed through the clouds as a dark streak across the sky.

And we were there to see it.

Steven Cook is a Gazette reporter.

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