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Leaving Home by Bill Dunford
 

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  • I once saw a rocket roar into the sky carrying a robotic spacecraft bound for Mars. The Curiosity rover, powered by nuclear isotopes and armed with a laser, will explore the enigmatic Gale Crater after crossing millions of miles of hostile space. But its journey started on a sunny Saturday morning in Florida, and a NASA Tweetup gave me the privilege to be there.

    The launch was a spectacle of flame and speed. That morning, thousands of mechanical systems and people came together to make liftoff happen at precisely the appointed time: 10:02 am EST.

    We stood in a field a few short miles from the launch pad. We had been anxiously watching the skies for changes in the weather. In the final minutes of the countdown, we listened to launch control over smartphones as mission managers proceeded through the final reviews and announced the results of one last weather check: we were go for launch. The last few seconds stopped my breath and made my hands shake a little as I readied my camera.

    At 0 minutes the nose of the rocket emerged from behind the trees and the ship jumped into the air. It was shockingly fast, and so bright that you could barely look at it. The sound wave arrived a few seconds later, not as loud as I had imagined, but crackling like the sound of a bonfire. The rocket ascended through layers of cloud before emerging into a bright blue sky. In just seconds it was gone, leaving behind a tower of smoke that curved away east over the Atlantic Ocean and finally disappeared from view.

    There was a lot of cheering and hugging. Many people cried. I was excited, but it just didn't move me that way.

    After everyone had finished shaking hands, we went back to the big tent NASA had set up to house the Tweetup, and watched live video from mission control so we could see the rest of the departure. Real-time data feeds updated a view of the upper-stage Centaur rocket, now in space, as it completed the last engine burn that actually pushed Curiosity out of Earth’s gravity and toward Mars. More cheers.

    Then we saw something I hadn’t really thought about before. A camera mounted at the top of the rocket's upper stage showed a live video feed of the spacecraft that is now carrying Curiosity on its trip to Mars. The whole ship began to slowly rotate in order to stabilize itself in flight. Then the spacecraft silently separated from the rocket and drifted away into the blackness of space. Its solar panels glinted in the sun like jewels.

    And then I realized I could see something reflected in the shimmering panels. It was the sun setting over the curving blue horizon of the Earth. Curiosity was truly leaving forever now, carrying with her the hopes of so many people on that thin, fragile arc of green and blue.

    I was surprised to realize my eyes were welling with tears.
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