Madelain Tigano – The Corsair
The color of dawn begins to tint the sky, though the moon still lingers as everyone faces east, waiting. The countdown reaches 10, with every second thereafter a tease until the launch begins.
At first there is no sound. Smoke rises from underneath the space shuttle and begins to fill the scene. Fire erupts from the 1.7 million-pound external tank filled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The ground vibrates; tremors felt by every soul positioned two miles away as they watch Discovery take off for space.
NASA’s STS-131 mission has successfully made its round trip. In Discovery’s chief seat sat Commander Alan Poindexter, 48, who graduated from PJC in 1983.
It’s a bittersweet journey. After first traveling into space in February 2008, this is Poindexter’s last shuttle flight following the announcement that the program is being cut from NASA’s budget. Only three missions remain; all are scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.
“I think the end of the shuttle program is a time to celebrate all the accomplishments, all of the great work that we’ve done with the shuttle over the past 30 years,” Poindexter said. “It’s just been a spectacular experience.”
Discovery’s STS-131 commander has played a big role in the program’s success.
After high school, Poindexter attended PJC before moving on to Georgia Institute of Technology, where he graduated in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering.
He then underwent flight training at Pensacola Naval Air Station, where he earned his wings.
“Like most Navy pilots, I went through flight training in Pensacola,” he said. “I flew fighters for the Navy in San Diego for three years, went and did my post-graduate education and then I was a test pilot in Patuxent River, Md., for a few years. I was back in the fleet in the Navy when I was selected to come back here to NASA to become an astronaut.”
Poindexter was selected by NASA in 1998; his first flight was aboard Atlantis for the STS-122 mission.
His latest mission was to command Discovery as it docked to the International Space Station, then land the shuttle on April 20 at Kennedy Space Center.
“Alan Poindexter is a role model in many ways, but certainly one we can all say ‘got there from here,’” said PJC President Ed Meadows.
Meadows and staff members from PJC’s The Corsair were invited to witness Discovery’s April 5 launch at 6:21 a.m.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me and my family,” Meadows said. “The discussions with NASA staff, especially with astronauts like Eileen Collins, were very insightful in regards to the number of years of training and preparation that must be undertaken to be selected to travel into space. One astronaut explained it as one year of training for each day in space.”
For Christina Drain, The Corsair’s adviser, it was her second time covering Poindexter in his flights to space.
“I never thought I would ever see a shuttle launch, although I grew up in the space age,” she said. “To see two launches has been incredible, and to have met the astronaut and follow Dex’s missions has been really special.”
Six students have accompanied Drain on the two trips, each time covering the launches through stories, photos and video for eCorsair.com.
The Corsair staffers also got to participate in all press events, including the astronaut walkout, when the astronauts are photographed by the media as they leave their preparation quarters to board the shuttle before launch.
“It has been quite an opportunity for the students,” Drain said. “They are working right alongside journalists from the Associated Press, CNN, ABC, NBC, Space.com, and the list goes on. They can’t really fathom the enormity of the opportunity until they step into the NASA newsroom and briefing room for the first time.”
Said Richard Rodriguez, The Corsair photographer: “Being among the crowd of seasoned professionals was a real learning experience.”