It may sound aggrandizing to call what I experienced on Monday, May 11, 2009, the "launch of a lifetime," but it's quite the literal truth. STS-125 was the last—the very last—servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. Never again will two shuttles be posed on launch pads 39A and 39B at the same time, one ready to undertake the mission and a second on standby for rescue. It's the last time anyone will see that sight. It was equal parts breathtaking and saddening.
Space Shuttle Atlantis launched on a sweltering hot afternoon at 2:01 p.m. From seven miles away on the East Causeway, there's no sound beyond the chatter and excited conversations of the thousands of onlookers surrounding you. Suddenly, there's a flicker of flame beneath the shuttle then bounds of billowing smoke as the heat interacts with the water sloughing the fire trenches to create copious amounts of steam. Then there's this sudden, intense brightness as the shuttle lifts off. The light hits you long before the sound and is startling, especially from seven miles away. It isn't until the shuttle begins to arc away that the sound finally rolls over you and beats down your eardrums, giving the impression that the sound cuts out here and there because it's beyond what your ears can fathom.
I rented a 600mm lens for the occasion and put together a short movie of all the stills captured with it. It didn't feel right going through all the trouble of getting the lens to Florida and only using one still for a print, so this is my consolation effort.
In a few days, the mission team will return and Hubble will hopefully live on to 2014. More than that, I hope NASA decides to service Hubble in the future. I'd sorely miss those amazing interstellar images if ever Hubble were to retire.