Dutch offers first-hand account, photos of historic space shuttle launch

space shuttle Atlantis launch, July 8, 2011
Prof. Steve Dutch was a witness to history July 8 as space shuttle Atlantis blasted off for the final time.

Shooting video with one hand and still photos with the other, Dutch joined upward of a million people expected to turn out near Florida’s Kennedy Space Center for the historic launch. It was the last of the space shuttle missions, marking the end of an era for U.S. space flight.

space shuttle Atlantis launch, July 8, 2011

Dutch, a professor of Natural and Applied Sciences whose courses include astronomy, geology and exploration of the universe, staked out his spot the night before, and he and his wife, Shawn, slept in their car. Weather had threatened to scuttle the launch, but the shuttle blasted off just before 10:30 a.m. central time as scheduled.

It took only about 20 seconds for the shuttle to punch through the cloud deck, Dutch said, which was followed by a roar that sounded like a long rumble of thunder.

“The thing that struck me the most,” he said, “was this incredibly brilliant golden flame coming down from the shuttle.”

space shuttle Atlantis launch, July 8, 2011

The launch was followed by thunderous applause and chants of “U.S.A.,” Dutch said, but it was a bittersweet occasion, knowing the shuttle program is coming to an end. Witnessing this “piece of history” was perhaps even more meaningful because it was the last launch, Dutch said. In the future, U.S. astronauts will have to hitch a ride to the International Space Station.

“What it means now is that for at least some years, the U.S. isn’t going to have (its) own manned space flight,” Dutch said. “ … (That’s) not something I think we should be proud of.”

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