Standing on the grounds of Kennedy Space Center, facing the launch pad as a space shuttle lifts off, is an experience that defies words. Friday's historic launch of Atlantis marks the beginning of the end for NASA's space shuttle fleet.
It is an almost impossible experience to describe. Upon liftoff, there is a bright blaze from the engines, a flaming trail that cuts the sky vertically, the cloud plume that begins in silence, going up, and then the thunder that mounts and rolls into a noise that seems to make both the sky and your stomach shudder.
Stephen Bach, a landscape painter from Orlando, Florida, watched the launch from the Kennedy Space Center, two paintings in progress on an easel before him, both of the shuttle. He gazed directly across the water at Atlantis on the launch pad, and then, Atlantis in flight.
"It's just a really amazing sight, and I don't think you can describe it until you see it, you know," said Bach. "I've seen it 30 times, I'm sure, through the years from Orlando or from some place off the Cape. But this is just another level."
But Bach is a painter, a man well versed in images and details, and he describes the seconds after Atlantis disappeared above the clouds.
"The plume is amazing, and it's cast a shadow across the bottom of the cloud layer which is just astounding," Bach added. "It's almost as impressive as the launch, but in a different way. You can see the yellow coming through the inside of the plume. It's just a very remarkable sight. It's nothing like you picture it when you watch it on TV. It's just tenfold better, you know. Amazing."
As Bach still gazed at the plume, barely able to look away, his painting of Atlantis taking flight garnered another shuttle watcher's attention. The landscape painter who turned his talents to the sky had an offer to buy, before the plume had even vanished.