08/15/2011 12:46 pm ET | Updated Oct 15, 2011

Throttle Up

A lot of people had come in off the street to watch the launch, including a mother with a little girl, about four years old, who sat in front of me. The weather at the moment looked fine, so the launch was still on. At two minutes to launch (T-minus-two) everyone started cheering and clapping. Atlantis was really going to go!

It was a minute to go, then only seconds, and then -- the clock stopped at 31 seconds to go. Everyone gasped and sighed, as we listened to the radio chatter as they tried to fix the problem. And then- the countdown picked up again! 30... 29... 28...

Everyone shouted out the countdown, like New Year's Eve.


I never heard what the announcer said as the shuttle cleared the tower, everyone was just making too much noise. (Which is just how it was watching STS-133 at Banana Creek, too.) But I later learned it was "The final liftoff of Atlantis! On the shoulders of the space shuttle, America will continue the dream!"

There it was, there it was, rising up like every recording and video I'd ever seen -- yes, for the last time, but no matter, there was no time to think of anything beyond that it was spectacular. The clouds were low that day, so Atlantis disappeared to the ground cameras after a while, but the cameras on the shuttle's fuel tank still provided a great view. There was a "shock halo" of water droplets around the engines as the shuttle went supersonic, and then, everyone was quiet. The cheering continued, but fainter, because everyone was listening for what was coming next.

Rituals are funny things. Even if we know doing something small won't have any effect on larger consequences, we do it anyway, because it makes us feel better. Sometimes it's unconscious and we can't help ourselves. The space shuttle's engines increase their power at just over a minute after launch to help push through the area where the structural forces on the shuttle vehicle are the strongest. Like every other important step of the flight, the astronauts communicate with Mission Control before this happens.

The way this usually goes is that the capsule communicator (Capcom) radios "(Name of shuttle), you are go at throttle up.", and the commander responds "Roger, go at throttle up."

Now, it happened that back in 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed just after that point in the back-and-forth communications. Of course, just saying "Go at throttle up" won't make the shuttle explode, any more than just wearing a certain shirt of the day of a test will make you get an A. But if you've ever watched a shuttle launch with a space enthusiast, you'll see them hold their breath at that point. I wasn't even alive at the time of the Challenger disaster and I still do it. Why? Cultural memory? I don't know. Rituals are funny things.

So, everyone in the auditorium was listening very closely...

"Atlantis, go at throttle up. No action, DPDT." The capcom said, announcing that there had been a minor transducer problem, but nothing that required the crew to take action.

"Go at throttle up. No action on DPDT." Commander Chris Ferguson responded.

A few quiet seconds. And then, as with all of the previous 110 missions since the disaster, no fireball. There was a collective exhalation and another outbreak of applause as the small booster rockets separated, that call had been made for the last time and there would be no need for the gasp ever again. It felt like the final exorcism of that dark memory. I remembered the portraits of the Challenger crew I'd seen on the memorial at Arlington a few days before. Go now, for you are free. I thought.