Let's Talk About: Last chance to see a shuttle launch

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If you have never seen a Space Shuttle launch, then you should consider a trip to Florida this year. After 131 flights by five different space shuttles since 1981, the remaining three shuttles have been scheduled for mandatory retirement by NASA.

The last three Shuttle missions will all have a priority of the continued assembly of the International Space Station. The final flight of the Shuttle Atlantis STS-132 is scheduled for liftoff on May 14. Endeavor's final flight, STS-134, is scheduled for July 29 and Discovery's final flight, STS-133, is scheduled for Sept. 16.

Weighing in at 4.5 million pounds, a space shuttle liftoff will begin slowly, accelerating to 100 mph after 8 seconds. By the time the first minute has passed, the shuttle will be traveling at 1,000 miles per hour, and it will have already consumed more than a million and a half pounds of fuel. To achieve orbit, the shuttle must then accelerate to almost 18,000 miles per hour -- a speed nine times as fast as the average rifle bullet.

The three main engines will be burning liquid hydrogen, the coldest liquid on Earth (-423°F), and liquid oxygen, as the shuttle accelerates. Since the hydrogen and oxygen can reach a temperature as high as 6000°F as they burn, the engines operate at greater temperature extremes than any other piece of machinery ever built. This is why one of the memories you will take home after viewing a launch is the dazzling bright exhaust from the shuttle as the spacecraft is propelled into orbit.

You can watch a launch from the Kennedy Space Center or one of the many prime-viewing areas outside of the space center. Some of the most popular off-site locations for launch viewing are along the Indian River on U.S. Highway 1 near Titusville, Cocoa Beach off State Road A1A, and Jetty Park at Port Canaveral.


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