Yesterday, I took a chance that NASA would call off a Kennedy Space Center landing of Space Shuttle Atlantis due to continued bad weather in Florida. I left Las Vegas at about 4:00 AM and stopped by my friend Ryan’s to borrow his 400 mm Canon prime lens. I checked the excellent updates on Spaceflight Now a few times while driving (yes, I know that’s really bad) and finally got confirmation that NASA had switched the landing site from Florida to California:

1402 GMT (10:02 a.m. EDT)
CALIFORNIA BOUND. Space shuttle Atlantis will not touch down at Kennedy Space Center to conclude its mission. Persistent unfavorable weather conditions at the Florida spaceport has forced NASA to divert Atlantis’ landing to the backup site at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

The deorbit burn is scheduled for 10:24:41 a.m., leading to touchdown at 11:39 a.m. EDT (8:39 a.m. local; 1539 GMT) to finish the final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Ideal weather conditions await the shuttle in California’s Mojave Desert today. At landing time, meteorologists are expecting clear skies, good visibility and southwesterly winds of 11 peaking to 17 knots down the runway.

And this:

Altman and company had hoped to close out the 126th shuttle mission Friday with a landing at the Kennedy Space Center. But low clouds and thundershowers at the Florida spaceport forced entry Flight Director Norm Knight to order a waveoff in hopes of better conditions Saturday.

The astronauts ran into more of the same Saturday. Knight considered diverting the crew to Edwards then, but ended up deciding the wave off another day in hopes of better weather Sunday. Atlantis had enough on-board supplies to remain in orbit through Monday and forecasters were predicting slightly better conditions in Florida for the crew’s third attempt.

Conditions were, in fact, better but with offshore clouds and rain threatening to move into the landing zone, Knight ordered another waveoff and diverted the crew to Edwards to close out a high-stakes mission that left the Hubble Space Telescope in its best health since launch in 1990. (Link)

I arrived at a spot adjacent to the Edwards AFB boundary fence and overlooking the base just a few minutes before Shuttle Atlantis arrived. Using the Delorme Map Atlas for southern California, I had located a great spot with a good view of Runway 22. After a few minutes, the Shuttle appeared as a white speck, very high and moving fast.

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Soon a double sonic boom announced the arrive of supersonic shock waves at ground level.

Atlantis began to make a 200° turn to the left to align with Runway 22.

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Gliding like a pair of pliers, Atlantis dropped 7 times faster than the normal descent rate of a commercial airliner.

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Gear down!

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Flare!

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Touchdown!

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Drag chute deployed.

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Wheels stop!

It was an awesome experience and amazing to watch. My dad had taken me to Edwards to watch Columbia land on July 4, 1982 (STS-4). We were also treated to see the newly completed Challenger do a low flyby on the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. Now I need to get to a launch before the Space Shuttle program ends in 2010. Anyone at NASA want to get me a seat in the observation area?