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Wally Schirra


 "Nebraska's First Astronaut" This sequence of photographs was recorded by me on a digital camera at the launch of STS-117.
Photo Credits: Mine and ASF
The view from our VIP balcony
A wide angle view from our VIP balcony at the Kennedy Space Center Saturn V building
Atlantis poised for liftoff on pad 39A
Atlantis is poised for liftoff but obscured by the launch structure on pad 39A
SSME Ignition
Thrust builds after space shuttle main engine ignition
SRB Ignition and Liftoff of STS-117
SRB ignition and liftoff of STS-117
Liftoff of STS-117
Atlantis emerges from behind the launch structure
Atlantis has cleared the tower
Atlantis on mission STS-117 has cleared the tower
Atlantis leaves the launch pad behind
Atlantis leaves the launch pad behind
A majestic climb
A majestic climb
Atlantis rolls on it's way to orbit
Atlantis rolls on its way to orbit
Atlantis rolls to a heads down orientation
Atlantis rolls to a heads down orientation
A wider perspective of the launch contrail
A wider perspective of the launch contrail
A very pronounced shadow is cast from the SRB exhaust contrail
A very pronounced shadow is cast from the SRB exhaust contrail
VIP guests watch in awe as Atlantis soars into the heavens
VIP guests and me watch in awe as Atlantis soars towards the heavens (Photo courtesy of ASF)
Atlantis heads down range
Atlantis heads down range
Nearing SRB Seperation
Atlantis nears SRB separation
Lexie, Mary, and Wayland pose post launch
Lexie, Mary, and Wayland in the conference room after the launch.  Wayland still shows concern.  ;-)
Lexie and Wayland on a bacony overlooking the Saturn V exhibit
Lexie and Wayland on a balcony overlooking the Saturn V exhibit
STS-117 leaves behind a mystical cloud
STS-117 leaves behind a mystical cloud after its launch (photo credit Chantell and Martin Cayer)
Another view of the post launch cloud
The white dot in the left center of the photo is Venus (photo credit Chantell and Martin Cayer)
The cloud imitates a heavenly smoke ring
A celestial smoke ring created by the launch of Atlantis (photo credit Chantell and Martin Cayer)
The cloud watches over visitors at the KSC Visitor's Center
The mystical cloud overlooks guests at the KSC Visitor's Center (photo credit Chantell and Martin Cayer)
The most amazing view of the KSC Rocket Garden ever
The most impressive view of the KSC rocket garden ever. (photo credit Chantell and Martin Cayer)

Nebraska's First Astronaut

My name is Jerry and space exploration has always been my passion in life. Since I grew up on a farm in the David City area, it was with great enthusiasm that I watched the launch of Nebraska's first astronaut. Clayton Anderson and his fellow STS-117 crew mates put on a spectacular show.

My wife Mary, my twelve year old granddaughter Lexie, and my four year old grandson Wayland and I were in Florida on June 8th to watch the launch in person. Our view was extra special. We were able to watch it from the VIP viewing site at the Kennedy Space Center.

Our viewing location was from a balcony off of a private conference room in the building that houses the historical Saturn V rocket at KSC. The Saturn V as some people are aware is the type of rocket that we used when we flew to the moon back in the late 60s and early 70s.

In this private conference room were approximately 60 very important guests. Coincident with the launch was an autograph show where 20 astronauts from the early days of the space program were appearing. These legendary astronauts and their families joined us on this viewing balcony. 

Standing near to me was Apollo 13 Commander James Lovell, Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan who was also the last man to walk on the Moon, and Skylab III commander Jerry Carr. Standing next to Mary and our grand children was our friend Apollo 15 Command Module Pilot Al Worden. Behind Mary was the second man to walk on the Moon, Apollo 11 Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin. Like Mary and I, Astronaut Aldrin had brought his grandson to watch this launch.

Can you imagine the exhilaration for me to have the opportunity to not only watch the space shuttle launch but to be rubbing elbows with these astronaut legends? It was an incredible experience for me!

As much as I like space exploration, my experience was greatly enhanced by being able to share this with my grand children. Providing them with opportunities for inspiration is what it's all about for me. I hope that they draw inspiration from this launch experience as I did watching the Moon landings when I was growing up. These Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts with provided me with the inspiration to obtain my electrical engineering degree from the University of Nebraska.  I am very grateful for that inspiration and motivation.

The balcony that we were on is approximately 4 miles away from launch pad 39-A from where Atlantis was set to leave. That is about as close as any non-NASA personnel are able to get to a launch. From that vantage point you have a tremendous view. This launch was the first time that NASA did not have this balcony and conference room reserved for Senators and Congressmen.

Prior to the launch the astronauts and we were treated to a wonderful buffet dinner. The food was great, but I found myself not very interested in it. Apprehension about the upcoming launch overrode any hunger pains that I had. I've seen launches in person before so my apprehension was nothing unusual.  It is normal for me to feel apprehension and anxiety just before a launch.

The countdown clock in front of our viewing location started counting down from the T-9 minute hold. That was a good sign and the assembled guests let out a cheer. As we approached the T-30 second mark, the astronauts were discussing among themselves what would happen next.  My granddaughter Lexie got into a friendly debate with Astronaut Worden about the holds during the countdown.  Astronaut Jerry Carr told us that when he saw the launch of Apollo 8, he could actually see shock waves on the water as they approached his viewing site. He was going to be watching for those shock waves again.

When the clock broke through the T-30 second mark another cheer erupted. It is not unprecedented, but there is little that would stop the countdown from this point. The first indication that you have that something is occurring at the launch pad is the tell tale steam cloud. This cloud of steam is generated from the space shuttle's main engines interacting with the sound suppression water that is dumped on the launch pad. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0 and liftoff of Nebraska's first astronaut!

We watched with mouths agape as Atlantis emerged from behind the launch pad structure. With the lighting conditions at 7:38 PM it was a beautiful site. The first few seconds of a launch are somewhat surreal. You see the launch happening but you don't hear it. Four miles away from the launch pad, it takes about 20 seconds for the sound from the rocket to reach you.

When the sound does arrive it is impressive. This was the loudest launch that I have ever heard. I think that was affected by the fact that we were on the balcony with a small overhanging roof. I think that structure tended to collect and amplify the sound. I looked at the metal covered pillar standing next to me and the walls of the post were violently shaking in and out from the wave of sound.

Many people have seen launches on television. What you don't know though is that the television image cannot do the event justice. The brightness of the solid rocket booster plumes is incredible. They are too bright to be captured by the television cameras. The color of the rocket plumes is also not accurately portrayed on television. There is a lot more color and intensity there than the cameras and capture. The color is more of a tangerine than pure bright white or yellow.

We watched in amazement as Atlantis thundered towards orbit. It was interesting to hear the astronaut's comments about the launch. Here were men who flew to the Moon and some of them who walked on the Moon. They were exclaiming how beautiful and powerful the launch was. The launch of STS-117 was a moving event for these astronaut legends.  They were as giddy as I was.

Recalling space shuttle Challenger on mission 51-L, SRB separation is an event that everyone holds their breath for at a space shuttle launch. It is a big relief when the solid rocket boosters are released and fall away from the vehicle. The astronauts were saying “Watch for it, watch for it, here it comes…” Then with the SRB separation happened and another cheer is let out by the crowd.

We were able to watch the shuttle for a long time. After SRB separation it is like a star visible in the daylight that recedes from you a good rate of speed. Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan could not believe how long the vehicle was visible.

Of course, all good things must come to an end. With launches it seems like they come to an end too quickly. Elated but sad that it was over we filed out of the conference room and proceeded to our VIP bus.

There was one more spectacular view that STS-117 had in store for us. As we were driving away from the space center we noticed the clouds. The wispy and multicolored clouds looked like cotton candy swirling in circles in the sky. It was a cloud formation unlike any that we had ever seen. These were not ordinary clouds. They were the byproduct of the exhaust from the rocket launch. It was a picture postcard close to a perfect day.

During the autograph show banquet, we met a couple from Canada who were visiting KSC for the very first time. Their names were Chantell and Martin Cayer.  We enjoyed talking with them during the course of the banquet. It was their very first launch and they told me about the photos that they got of the post launch cloud.  Chantell and Martin were kind enough to share those photos with us and gave me permission to share them on this web site. I am truly grateful for their willingness to share their fantastic photos.  In my history of watching launches, I have never seen anything as mystical or awe inspiring as that post launch cloud.

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UPDATED : June 11, 2008
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