The Oscars may have their red carpet, the Tonys, their Broadway stars, but this year’s Nebula Award weekend included an affair that outshone any actor or Hollywood affair. This was not the actual ceremony, but the May 14, 2010, launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis. I had the great pleasure of watching this event from the VIP bleachers of the Banana Creek Viewing Site with Asimov’s Nebula Award finalist Ted Kosmatka.
I’ve always wanted to attend a space launch. Last month I mentioned that my father was frequently in the Cocoa Beach area. On December 7, 1972, he and my mother witnessed the launch of Apollo 17. While I was enchanted by my parent’s vivid description of the night sky on fire, I knew theirs was an experience I couldn’t hope to duplicate. Apollo 17 was both the first crewed night launch and the last Moonshot. It seemed to take years before the Space Shuttle program was in full swing, and by then I was living in New York and my family no longer made regular visits to Cape Canaveral.
Naturally, I was thrilled when I heard that the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America had decided to hold the 2010 Nebula Awards weekend in conjunction with what would most likely be the ultimate launch of the Atlantis. I jumped at the chance to get a ticket to the space shot and was included in a small group of presenters and finalists who were able to watch the shuttle lift off three miles from its launch pad.
I had much of the same sort of fun at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, which is next to the viewing site, as I usually have over the Nebula weekend. I got to shop for souvenirs with my good friends, Betsy Wolheim and Sheila Gilbert, co-publishers of DAW Books; I had lunch at the center with SFWA’s executive director, Jane Jewell, and her husband (and Asimov’s book reviewer) Peter Heck; and I got to wander around with my author.
Ted and I marveled at the enormity of the gigantic Saturn V rocket suspended from the center’s ceiling. When Ted went outside to save a couple of seats, I ducked into some of the special exhibits. In addition to a backup Apollo command module and an unused Lunar Module, the center had a fascinating exhibit on the evolution of the spacesuit and casts of some of the Apollo astronaut’s hands.
After a while, I began to worry that I would miss the launch so I hurried outside to join Ted and a talented group of award finalists that included Rachel Swirsky, Eugie Foster, and Catherynne M. Valente, as well as Keith Stokes, who was being honored at the Nebulas with a SFWA Service Award. It looked like I had cut it fairly close since there was less than twenty minutes left on the Countdown Clock. We thought that meant that the shuttle might be taking off early, but we soon discovered that there would be a forty-five minute scheduled hold at the T-9 minute mark.
Many space shots are delayed due to weather or mechanical issues. I had come to Florida with some expectation that I might not get to see the shuttle take off at all or that the launch would be postponed until the next day, when we would all have to watch it from the beach (which wouldn’t have been half bad), because SFWA only had one-day access to the bus that would ferry us to the official site. The weather was beautiful, though, and everything seemed to be moving along fine when suddenly it was announced that unresolved questions about a stray ball bearing might force NASA to scrub the mission. Although the wait seemed endless, it probably only took about ten minutes before we were told that the ball bearing wasn’t a problem, the shuttle was still on the clock, and that it would almost certainly take off at the 2:20 launch time.
The moment of lift-off can only be described as exhilarating. I’m not sure if my heart was pounding so hard because of the reverberations from the launch, my excitement at being there, or some subconscious fear for the astronauts’ safety. It was a sensation unlike any I’ve ever experienced. Our view was perfect. Less than two minutes after T-0 we were told that the shuttle had already traveled twenty miles—nineteen of them straight up into the stratosphere.
In 2009, SFWA asked the singer/songwriter Janis Ian to act as Toastmaster for the awards. The words to the lovely song she performed as a tribute to the Nebulas were printed in last month’s issue and the song can still be heard on our website. This year SFWA arranged a shuttle launch in honor of Ted and the other finalists. I can’t imagine what this group of speculative authors will come up with next year, but I’m certainly looking forward to the adventure.