By Steve Marovich,
Carthage Assistant Athletics Director/Sports Information Director
Carthage College's Steve Mathe, a CCIW-Championship finalist in the 500 and 1650 Freestyles, was a part of a group of Carthage students who witnessed the final launch of the American space shuttle program at the invitation of NASA.
Physics professor Kevin Crosby and three students from the Carthage Microgravity Team watched and cheered as Atlantis STS-135 lifted off from Launch Pad 39A at 11:29:09 a.m., EST. The students watched the launch from just outside the launch control center.
"Most people who see the launch see it from off Space Center property, but we're at Kennedy Space Center right next to launch control," said Mathe. "Right now, we're as close as anybody can get without being an astronaut." Only two days before, the Carthage group was standing approximately 25 feet from Atlantis as it waited on Launch Pad 39A. They had been granted rare access to the pad on July 6 and were able to look down at the shuttle, its external fuel tank and its solid rocket boosters from Level 255 of the fixed service structure. "I was surprised that we got up there," said Amber Bakkum. "We were standing down at the base of the pad looking up and I was thinking, 'Wow, we are really close.' And then they said, 'Do you want to go in the elevator?' Yes, I want to go in the elevator! It was amazing."
"My friends and family couldn't believe it," Mathe added. "I've been sending them pictures and they're like, 'You got that close?' I had mentioned that maybe we'd get up to the pad and walk around on the ground. I never actually expected we'd get to go up in the service structure. I thought there would be no way they'd let us do that this close to launch. I still can't believe it. Nobody on any regular tour is going to get anywhere close to that. The normal observation gantry is a mile away from the pad."
The students were invited to watch the final launch and tour NASA facilities by NASA research engineer Rudy Werlink. Mr. Werlink worked with Carthage Microgravity Team during NASA's 2011 Systems Engineering Educational Discovery program, conducting an experiment aboard a zero-gravity aircraft. While in Florida, the students will assist Werlink with an ongoing experiment monitoring the integrity of the concrete support structures at the launch pad. They were joined on their tours of Kennedy Space Center facilities by Werlink and Dr. Ravi N. Margasahayam, a reliability engineer with NASA and a VIP tour guide. " I can't thank them enough," Mathe said. "Rudy for organizing this trip, and Ravi for leading our tour. He's the VIP tour guide for the dignitaries who come to KSC, and he gave us our tour, too. It was so nice of them to organize this for us, and invite us to come down and see the launch."
After the launch, the students were invited to a post-launch celebration for NASA employees in the vehicle assembly building. "I'm just sort of absorbing all of this — where we were, and where we are, and what the launch felt like," said Kimberly Schultz. "This was the last time we were ever going to be able to do this. We won't see a site like that ever again."