TIOGA COUNTY, N.Y. - The space shuttle Atlantis launched Friday from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on what is the final flight of NASA's shuttle program before the fleet is retired this year. The four-member crew, piloted by 45-year-old Tioga County, N.Y. native and Owego Free Academy graduate Doug Hurley, will be delivering vital supplies to the International Space Station.
For Hurley - and his friends and family who gathered near the space center to watch the final launch - it was extremely emotional, and what one old acquaintance of Hurley's described as exhilarating. Robin (Dukerich) Seward, of Nichols, N.Y., traveled to Florida on Wednesday with her husband Darryl to gather with Hurley's family, to witness the launch.
A 2009 Space Shuttle Endeavor launch, in which Hurley was a crew member, was scrubbed several times prior to its eventual departure on July 15, 2009. Because of the delays, some of those close to Hurley weren't able to readjust their schedules for a return trip to the rescheduled launch. Seward, who taught Hurley and had him in her homeroom during fifth grade at the Owego Elementary School, considered herself fortunate enough to return back in 2009 to witness that launch.
But for the July 8, 2011 launch, which was on-schedule and without delays, Seward and Hurley's family members were able to be present, together, to watch Hurley pilot the final shuttle launch, ending a 30-year history of NASA's shuttle program.
"They're on top of the world," said Seward in a telephone interview following the launch. She added, "He's going to be the coolest pilot in the world, from the coolest small town in America," dubbing a title that Owego, N.Y. was given several years ago.
But Seward talked mostly of her interactions with Hurley's family, whom she has remained in contact with throughout the years, and what it meant for them to finally witness his launch in this final mission.
Although Seward retired from teaching for the Owego-Apalachin School District in 2006, during her career she had the pleasure of teaching Hurley. Hurley was in fifth grade at that time.
Seward described traveling to Florida in June of 2009 to watch a launch, and how the first and second attempts were scrubbed, and then postponed until the following month. Seward returned in July of 2009, and following several more scrubs, the Endeavour was able to launch on July 15. But because so many traveled in 2009 to see the launch were unable to return, the July 8, 2011 launch was a very sensitive issue for Hurley.
In a NASA interview just prior to the July 8, 2011 launch, Hurley said so himself. "It's a very sensitive issue for me because there were so many attempts with the first (2009) launch." His family and friends were unable to see it because of the delays.
Seward described the one window of opportunity for the launch that cleared the sky at 11:26 a.m. on Friday.
She added that early Friday morning the clearance for the flight based on the weather was at 10 percent. "We stayed positive," said Seward, "We were looking for glimmers of the sun."
So when the sky opened, and the sun came through, Seward and Hurley's family knew that this time, he was going to go.
"To me," she added, "it was the perfect launch."
"Think of the view he has," she said of the pilot's seat, located in the front next to the commander, Chris Ferguson.
But with a focus on watching the excitement of Hurley's family, Seward could only use the words breathtaking and exhilarating to describe the entire event.
Of those family members gathered in the group were Hurley's parents, Sherry and Harvey (Harv) Hurley, his wife Karen, their 17-month old son Jack, and his cousin Nan Hurley - who is married to Greg Zipadelli, crew chief for Joe Gibbs Racing rookie Joey Logano.
Hurley's wife, Karen Nyberg, is also an astronaut, who will be making a shuttle flight herself in 2013, but will be doing it from Russia as the Atlantis flight marks the program's end.
The reactions to the launch on Friday of each friend and family member differed in their own way, according to Seward.
In an auditorium where everyone gathered the day before the launch, a screen projected a timeline and detailed the final event. When Astronaut Doug Hurley's picture came on the screen, according to Seward, his son, Jack, could be heard hollering, "da da." "It was the cutest thing," said Seward. "I just wanted to cry."
Hurley's best friend, Jeff Rudler of Apalachin, N.Y. in Tioga County, was also at the launch on Friday. In a conversation with Seward about the multiple attempts to launch back in 2009, he stated, "If I had to mortgage my house to continually travel, I would be there too."
His cousin Nan, according to Seward, had tears of joy and excitement when the shuttle exited the launch pad. And although the low clouds didn't allow them to see the shuttle ascend into space, they could hear it. At that point, Seward added, she could see the relief in the faces of all the family and friends who gathered.
During a Saturday interview with Seward, after family and friends celebrated throughout the evening with a large gathering, the news came in that the shuttle was half way to its destination. And as she sat through the interview, she continued to watch Hurley in orbit. "He's in the shuttle, and he is doing his duties already," said Seward of the extensive news coverage near the space center in Florida.
But for Seward, as an educator and Hurley's teacher, it meant so much for her to witness the excitement of those who weren't able to witness his first launch in 2009. "I still look at Hurley like he's my student," said Seward, noting that she still has photos of him from when he was in her class.
And she always believed that he would do something special some day. Seward didn't recall Hurley ever mentioning that he wanted to be an astronaut one day, but she did recall his mother telling her that he was a big fan of Star Trek, and that he had things all over his room relating to it.
From the perspective of a teacher, she concluded, it will inspire others. "He will motivate kids ... local kid becomes astronaut."
The Atlantis Crew of Mission Specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus, Pilot Doug Hurley, and Commander Chris Ferguson are expected to arrive at the space station today, and will then return on July 20 - which is also the 42nd anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. At that point their mission, as well as the NASA's Space Program, will be complete.