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Landing Day

Here's the last day, Sunday, May 24, when they landed.  I will follow with one more set of final thoughts.

6am - the sky has large patches of blue; I begin to feel some optimism that they might actually land today.

We follow our usual routine, going through security and driving to the press site.  I'm not the only optimist; everyone seems buoyed by the improved weather, although there are still some clouds and thundershowers offshore.

The word is, one way or another, they're determined to land today.  The shuttle has one more day of supplies, so tomorrow could be an option, but they want to keep it as a last resort emergency day, in case they discover a problem as they're starting the landing prep.

The other possible landing site for Atlantis is Edwards Air Force base in California, the famous dry lakebed that was the setting for much of Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff.  Edwards is nearly ideal - it's got miles and miles of nothing, incredibly long runways, and usually excellent weather.

But NASA really would prefer to land at Cape Canaveral, for one simple reason: transporting the shuttle back here from Edwards is a real bear.  It costs about $1.8 million, and it's pretty dangerous to boot.

To transport the shuttle, they strap it on top of a special 747.  Because the shuttle's exterior is so vulnerable to impacts, they won't fly through rain or weather - that could damage the shuttle's surfaces.  Nor can they fly too fast either, also for fear of damaging the shuttle.

So they fly slow and low - below 10,000 feet, where the air is thickest.  Between all the weight they're carrying and the air resistance, they burn through fuel fast.  So they have to stop frequently; they end up doing a series of short hops from one military air base to another.  It takes about a week to fly the shuttle from the West Coast to Florida.

So it's pretty clear why they prefer to land here.  That's why they've tried three days in a row - despite picture perfect weather at Edwards.

By now, on our third day of waiting, our crew is running out of ways to pass the time.  Our sound man tells me a "producer joke:"  Q: How can you tell if a producer is lying?  A: When his lips are moving.

It occurs to me to counter with a "sound man" joke:  Q: How tall is the average sound man?  A:  I don't know, I've never seen one standing up.  (they always sit down on the job, get it?)  But since our sound man today is not only a nice guy, but also happens to be rather short, I refrain.

Instead, I answer with my personal favorite producer joke.  Q:  How many producers does it take to change a light bulb?  A:  I'm really not sure - what do you think?  I like this one because it points up one of the parts of the job that I think is hardest: maintaining objectivity or perspective.  Even though I do tend to have strong opinions, I'll often feel unsure because I'm just too close to a film...

Without warning, an announcement begins and our levity abruptly ceases.  Although the sky looks mostly blue, there are still some storm clouds on the edge of the general landing zone (a circle 30 miles in diameter centered on the runway).   The Weather Officer says the weather here is "too dynamic," meaning it changes often and fast.  Though it's good now, there's no guarantee what it will be like an hour from now.

Therefore, they're going to land at Edwards. 

A collective groan passes through the crowd.  After camping out here for three days, it's definitely a letdown.  A third of the crowd starts to slowly collect their stuff and drift out to their cars; the rest of us wait to watch the Edwards landing on TV.

I remind myself that the astronauts are kept pretty sequestered once they get back to earth; we'd be lucky to get a statement from them, or a short Q&A, but no real one-on-one interviews would be allowed anyway.

An hour later, we watch a beautiful touch down on TV.

They're back, and they're safe.  I'm relieved.

After spending two years filming them practice and prepare, it had started to feel like the actual flight might never happen.  And now, over these past two whirlwind weeks, it has.

I can't believe it's over.

We head for the airport and begin our own journey back home.  I've learned an enormous amount these past two weeks, and changed some long held opinions about the space program.  Tomorrow I'll jot down some final thoughts.
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