Members of the Carthage Microgravity Team enjoy rare access to launch pad, other NASA facilities during trip to Kennedy Space Center "/> Skip to main content
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Carthage students witness final shuttle launch

July 10, 2011

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — It was 11:26 a.m. EST on Friday, July 8, the exact minute that space shuttle Atlantis was scheduled to thunder into orbit for the last time. After 30 years, the American space shuttle program was coming to an emotional end. An estimated 1 million people had jammed Florida’s “Space Coast” to watch NASA blast a shuttle into space for the 135th and final time.

Three miles from the launch pad, Carthage physics professor Kevin Crosby and three students from the Carthage Microgravity Team— Amber Bakkum, ’12; Steven Mathe, ’13; and Kimberly Schultz, ’12 — were among the invited guests watching the historic launch from the Kennedy Space Center grounds. They were standing right outside the Launch Control Center. “We’re as close as anybody can get without being an astronaut,” Steven had marveled just moments before.

Now the chemistry major was glancing between the launch pad and the clock on his phone, growing more concerned as the minutes ticked by. 11:27. 11:28.

“From our vantage point just outside launch control, we couldn’t hear the loudspeaker updates on launch progress and we couldn’t see the countdown clock, so the hold at T minus 30 seconds was a heart stopper,” Prof. Crosby said. “The launch time came and went with no launch, and I thought there must have been a pad abort, which is a very dangerous last-minute launch abort due to some major malfunction detected by onboard computers.”

“Everything became very still,” recalled Kim, a physics major from Genoa City, Wis. The countdown had stopped so engineers could visually confirm the retraction of the “beanie cap,” which vents oxygen gas from the external fuel tank. “All of the spectators were intently watching the launch pad,” Kim continued. “Then we saw the first plume of smoke. I think at that moment, my stomach dropped a bit and I was thinking, ‘It’s really happening!’ “

“The sky lit up with an intense, bright light that rivaled the sun,” Prof. Crosby said. “Fifteen seconds after we saw the ignition, the sound of the engine hit us, having traveled the three miles from the pad. It’s something you felt as much as heard.”

“We could feel the ground and our bodies shake with the vibrations,” Kim said. “The crowd started cheering and clapping, and there were hugs all around. It was magical.”

Atlantis blasted off at 11:29:09 EST, and Amber Bakkum has the “I WAS THERE” T-shirt to remember it. “I’m taking away some amazing memories,” said Amber, a physics and mathematics major from Winthrop Harbor, Ill. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I feel very fortunate to have been a part of it.”

Work on microgravity experiment led to launch invite

For Amber, Steven, Kim and Prof. Crosby, the journey to Kennedy Space Center began in December 2010, when the Carthage Microgravity Team was paired with NASA senior research engineer Rudy Werlink for NASA’s Systems Engineering Educational Discovery program, or SEED. The team worked with Mr. Werlink to design and build a zero-gravity fuel gauge. In early April 2011, they traveled to Houston’s Johnson Space Center and flew their experiment aboard a microgravity aircraft. 

Weeks later, Mr. Werlink contacted Prof. Crosby to arrange a second trip. “We were invited to Kennedy Space Center to participate in Rudy’s ongoing experiment monitoring the integrity of the buried concrete support structures at the shuttle launch pad,” Prof. Crosby said. “Rudy’s interests are in modal analysis of spacecraft systems, or using the natural vibrations of structures to learn about their integrity and internal geometry. This is the technique we used in the SEED project to estimate the volume of propellant in a model spacecraft tank.”

Mr. Werlink wanted to continue working with the students, and to build on the enthusiasm they already had shown for NASA research, he said. “The students really were the engineers on that project, and that’s a great thing. Hopefully this has been a life experience that they can look back to and say, ‘That is when I decided to do something in science.’ “

It’s not unusual for an experience like the SEED project to lead to other opportunities, Prof. Crosby said. “The opportunities that we provide students through programs such as the microgravity research group continue to open doors for students long after the projects are finished.” Carthage has been selected for NASA’s SEED program four years in a row, generating an elite group of students who can add their work with NASA to resumes and graduate school applications. “Over the years, participation in the program has led directly or indirectly to premiere graduate school admissions, internships with NASA, student appointments to international leadership positions in the space sciences, conference presentations at international congresses, and the invitation to conduct research at Kennedy Space Center at such a historic point in time for America’s space program.”

Students see Atlantis on the launch pad: ‘Incredible’

While at Kennedy Space Center, the Carthage group enjoyed rare access to NASA facilities. They toured the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), attended a private post-launch NASA party, and saw the shuttle landing facility and Launch Pad 39B, currently being dismantled. They stood beneath the two-story Mobile Launcher Platforms and beside the crawler-transporters used to take shuttles from the VAB to the launch pad.

In the Orbiter Processing Facility, where orbiters are taken for post-flight service immediately after landing, the students saw Discovery and Endeavor. “We climbed up the scaffolding surrounding Endeavor in the OPF and actually got to look down the length of the open payload bay and inside the orbital maneuvering system pod,” Prof. Crosby said. “We got to touch Endeavor, which had been in space 25 times,” added Kim.

“That’s one for the history books because it’s very hard to get people into the OPF to see those,” said their tour guide, Dr. Ravi Margasahayam, a reliability engineer at Kennedy Space Center. Seeing NASA technology first-hand and talking to NASA engineers can lead young scientists in new career directions, he said. “We need to make people think outside the box. We change one person’s life and that means a lot to us. We want the students to leave here understanding that there is nothing like NASA in the world. We have sent man to the moon from KSC.”

The highlight of their tour came two days before the launch, when the Carthage group was granted rare access to Atlantis on the launch pad. The students looked down on Atlantis, its solid rocket boosters and external tank from level 255 of the pad’s fixed service structure. “I never expected that we’d get to go up in the fixed service structure,” Steven said. “That was incredible — just being there and being that close to the shuttle before lift-off. Nobody on any regular tour is going to get anywhere close to that. The normal observation gantry is a mile away from the pad.”

Witnessing the end of an era

While the trip to Kennedy Space Center provided thrills at every turn, the students didn’t forget that they were witnessing the final days of the shuttle program. “It was an interesting time to visit because a lot of the contractors who had worked for NASA for 20 years were losing their jobs that week,” said Mr. Werlink. Since Atlantis landed on July 21, thousands of shuttle workers have been laid off.

“I’m glad that we could be there for the last launch, but it is sad to see such a great program end,” Kim said. “The space shuttle program has been around longer than I’ve been around. It’s hard for me to think about a world without space shuttles.”

Yet if anything, Kim’s experiences at NASA, both in Houston and Florida, have made her more excited for the future. “My experiences with the Carthage Microgravity Team have inspired in me an interest in pursuing a career in studying the world around us,” she said. She is planning to go to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D., perhaps in materials physics. Amber will pursue a degree in medical physics after graduating from Carthage in May. Steven, who has paired minors in physics and mathematics with his chemistry major, plans to participate in the microgravity program again this year. His work with the team has led to a new passion for space science; he now dreams of working for NASA.

“In the launch of Atlantis, I saw a testimony of human ingenuity and determination,” Kim said. “The shuttle program is over, but think of what we learned from it. There’s only one way to go from here — up.”

The Carthage group’s trip to Kennedy Space Center was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium.