STS-108: A Return to Space (December 5, 2001)

Meeting Buzz Aldrin   |  Rocket Winter   |  The Spaceships of 2001 (ISS and Mir)
Aftermath: A New York Journal   |  My AstroWeb

The crew of STS-108 on their way to
the spacecraft before lift-off. [NASA photo]

Tonight, for the second straight night, I ended up at the one place in New York City I had been most uneasy about visiting since the attack: the top of the Empire State Building. Visiting this most legendary landmark--strangely, once again New York's tallest building--right after Tom Ridge's latest terrorism warning felt a bit like, I'd imagine, going to North Carolina's Outer Banks during hurricane season, but I was on a mission that superceded all fear: to watch the Space Shuttle Endeavour rocketing into orbit, the first Shuttle flight since September 11. The Empire State Building--a short walk from my office--is the one nearby place that guarantees me a relatively unobtructed view of the sky in all directions, and I had previously witnessed one shuttle launch from there. They launch the missions to service the International Space Station (ISS) right up the U.S. East Coast, a little out to sea, so you can see the last minute and a half from when it clears its horizon to when its main engine burns out and it enters orbit.

Last night I watched the International Space Station pass over, looking like a steady, bright star slowly arcing out of the west, but the shuttle itself was not to be seen. When I got home, I discovered the flight had been scrubbed due to high winds, and rescheduled for today. The forecast was for it to quickly cloud up, but it stayed clear. I had gotten the time wrong, and had to run up to the Empire State Building, but there was no line for tickets so I got there with time to spare. To the south I could see the floodlit area around Ground Zero The groundsmoke that had been evident yesterday was not visible. I watched the lights of airplanes trace their arcs across the sky, a small part of me expecting to sight a low-flying jet heading straight towards us. (Particularly disconcerting were the planes they flew right up the Hudson River, though they were reasonably high up.)

A few stars and planets (Fomalhaut, Mars) were visible. At the appointed time, I looked to the southeast, and saw a light arcing up with the right trajectory and speed. I thought it was the Shuttle, but wasn't totally sure that it wasn't a plane until after a minute it abruptly disappeared as its main engine cut off. It was quite a moving sight, watching it emerge from the same wide-field naked-eye view as Ground Zero, hopefully a sign of better things to come. [I understand it's carrying the flag recovered from the WTC site, as well as smaller flags and memorobilia to be given to the families of victims of the attack.] I took one last walk around the observation deck, looking at the beauty of the Chrysler Building, then took the elevator down while I was still ahead of the game. Maybe now I'll be able to look at the Empire State Building from near my office, where it extends nearly a third of the way into the sky, without imagining what would happen if it were to get hit.

Due to new security procedures, little or no advance warning is being given for shuttle launches, so it is unlikely that I will be able to observe any more in this manner for the foreseeable future.

E-mail to tonyhoffman [at] earthlink [dot] net