(loud boom shakes the windows)
A: Whoa, what was that?
C: Is the shuttle due home tonight? Because, that sounded like re-entry.
A: Oh, maybe. That did sound like the sonic boom
A quick check of the internet and a BBC article confirmed the shuttle had indeed safely returned to Kennedy Space Center.
Its wonderful living in a place where you can readily identify the sound of the sound barrier being broken* and that gives you very personal memories of shuttle launches. I have dozens of memories of standing out on the school of the lawn watching the huge smoke trails the shuttle makes across a blue sky as it launches. And the awesome spectacle when my parents took us to see a night launch - parked on the side of the road at Cape Canaveral watching the huge flames erupt and light up the horizon. Feeling as small as an ant against the enormity of the machine and the knowledge it would be traveling in to space.
The Challenger explosion was a vivid reminder of just how precarious this whole enterprise was. It was January, my Dad's birthday, and I was sick again. Mom decided not to wake me up to go out in the cold to see the launch. I'd seen others. My classmates watched from the school lawn, as did my mother from the parking lot of her office. Dad, engrossed in a project, brushed his colleagues off when they called him to the window for the launch. "I've seen plenty of launches." But, he quickly ran to the window when the shouts began, something was very wrong. The stories were replayed for weeks, months even, as we followed the news of the investigation. Ice on the shuttle - pushing the boundaries by launching in unusually cold temperatures. And, in the end, defective O rings. Every school child learned what an O ring was that year... I'm sure everyone was impacted by such a national tragedy, but its always just a little more personal when it is in your backyard. We all wanted to be astronauts in those days.
Its probably just as well for our careers that we didn't become astronauts, as it turns out. The shuttles are being retired, to be replaced by some other means of travel to space, and the demise of the space program in central Florida seems likely. I'll be very sorry to see it go.
*For those of you who don't live in such a place, it sounds like a huge transformer blowing in your backyard or like a car ran in to something really big and slightly hollow. My Mom once thought she'd hit something when the sonic boom of a shuttle re-entry coincided with her pulling out of a parking space. She had a few worried moments before she remembered the shuttle was scheduled to return.