By now it's a somewhat common event, one that for most Americans is signaled by nothing more than a brief clip on the news.
But a shuttle launch is still one of mankind's most complex and massive undertakings, a carefully-primed $1.3 billion explosion that turns years of planning and construction into a spectacle that only lasts a few minutes.
To those who see it in person, however, it's the spectacle of a lifetime. People come from across the country and the world to see it. They travel from Michigan or Alaska or England or Italy and line up along a worn river bank in Florida, waiting for hours, maybe days, to see a group of people embark on another journey, this one powered by rockets that ferry them 23 miles away in about 30 seconds. To the fans, the astronauts strapped into the Space Transportation System, as their ride is called, aren't just "rocket jockeys." They're like rock stars. (Just see this photo).
Last month, when the space shuttle left the earth at night for one of the last times on its way to the space station, I and a colleague from Motherboard.tv went to Cape Canaveral and nearby Titusville, sometimes known as Space City, USA. Inspired in equal doses by films like The Right Stuff and Heavy Metal Parking Lot, we weren't just there to meet the NASA insiders (including NBC correspondent Jay Barbree, who's seen every space shot). Our main focus was the fans, the curious and the die-hard who had come from far and wide for a roller coaster of a space shuttle tailgate. You can watch the finished product here:
"Space Shuttle Parking Lot," the 30-minute film I co-produced on the last night launch of Space Shuttle Endeavor, featuring crowd-sourced launch footage.
The long wait, cold weather, and even a 24-hour delay be damned. To the masses who had assembled around campfires, on lawn chairs, behind cameras, the event was unmissable not just for the unparalleled sight and sound of a shuttle interrupting the placid dark of a Florida night. This, the fifth-to-the-last shuttle launch, was another bittersweet milestone in the potential close of America's manned space era, an epic story that began with the heady experiments of the Space Race and extended well into the future, towards the dream of moon bases and Martian colonies.
If those dreams have been put on the back burner by the Obama administration's new NASA focus -- a shift that threatens the economy of the whole area -- dreams of space are alive and well across the Space Coast. And there's simply no better place to see the awe, the excitement, and occasional frustration surrounding America's space project in a moment of twilight than the place where those dreams, for minutes at a time, become overwhelming, jaw-dropping, mind-elevating reality.
After this past week's launch of STS-131, there are only three launches left.
SpaceLaunchInfo and Launch Photography both offer tips on how to see a launch. Read more about the amazing 30-year-old space shuttle, the fabulous shuttle training jet, and the nearly complete space station.
This originally appeared on Motherboard.tv