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A once-in-a-lifetime Endeavour
Hoschton woman gets chance to photograph NASA's last night launch
Katie Darby, 21, is a photographer from Hoschton. She got credentials to shoot last week's launch of space shuttle Endeavour, the last nightime launch that is scheduled. She shares her story today.

It is awe inspiring to be part of an elite group of media that is allowed exclusive access to the intricate details of a tightly secured historic event.

I arrived in Titusville, Fla., Thursday before the scheduled STS 130 Endeavour Shuttle launch. This mission involves the addition of a 17-windowed cupola and an additional room - known as Tranquility - that will make the International Space Station 90 percent complete.

This is the last night flight for Endeavour.

I was ready for Jimmy to show me the ropes of photographing the shuttle launch, but first he showed me the Astronaut Hall of Fame, and then decided to show me around town.

On the corner of one of the streets sat a small museum and store. Everything inside the museum area was donated — spacesuits, parts of rockets and shuttles; a lot of history was inside this small building.

The town seemed to be rundown a bit and the businesses that were left seemed to be struggling. When taking a look at this part of the city, you could imagine how it would have looked and operated back in the day —  probably the 1960s when many people kept up with the space program —  when most of America was excited about space exploration. That was a time when people knew the name of an astronaut going to space and truly admired his courage and knowledge. That was a time when growing up to be an astronaut was a hopeful dream. I could only imagine how it must have been, but cannot remember it being like that in my generation.

My generation does not hear about the space program in the news as much. The names of astronauts and scientists are not as well known; instead, we are interested in celebrities and Super Bowls.

The shuttle program is ending here in America. Manned flights to space will no longer be a big part of NASA. Instead, budgets are cut and many people working there may face the loss of jobs. I got the chance to meet and talk with people that come to almost every launch. I met with people who work and volunteer for NASA and they all have something in common: their love and admiration for the space program.

They are truly a dedicated bunch who love this work and say that space shuttle launches never get old. They were all very helpful, showing me around NASA and informing me how things operated and worked.

On Friday morning, we went out and around the pad to set up our remote cameras. A bus or van came to the press site, and we would line up our equipment on the ground. A dog then comes out and sniffs all the equipment before we are let on a vehicle.

After we loaded in the bus, our escort took us inside where the pipelines are and where the shuttle sits upon the pad. I set up my camera inside a wooden box with a plastic cover over the camera body to protect my equipment from weather and exhaust from the shuttle. A timer was hooked up to the camera so that when it gets close to launch time it will turn on and start firing once a loud noise is heard. I placed the box on a tripod, and tied it down to the ground.

The next day, the press was allowed to revisit the camera site in order to double-check the focus and composition. I also placed a fan by the lens to prevent fog buildup overnight. The launch was scheduled for 4:39 a.m. Sunday.

We arrived at Kennedy Space Center around 11 p.m. Saturday to get ready for the astronaut walkout, which was scheduled for 12:45 a.m.

After the dogs came out, we were taken by bus to the astronaut holding area. When we arrived, the mad rush of journalists ran to get the best spot to photograph them coming out to the NASA vehicle that would take them to the space shuttle.

It was an exciting moment, watching the astronauts walk out in their "orange pumpkin suits" and board a van to take them to the launch pad.

Excitement gathered as the launch time grew closer. The cloud coverage was much greater than expected, and right before launch time, the shuttle launch was scrubbed due to the weather.

I was disappointed to not see the launch that night; however, the shuttle launch was rescheduled for 4:15 a.m. Monday morning, Feb. 8. If the weather didn't improve the next day, the next launch date would revolve around other scheduling issues for NASA.

After a few hours, we were taken to adjust the timers on the cameras and set a new date and time. Our amazing escort then decided to let our van go out and tour some parts of the old NASA.

We went out to see Pad 34 where Apollo 1 was destroyed by fire during a test and training exercise on Jan. 27, 1967. We also got to see where the Gemini and Mercury 7 missions were launched. It was amazing to see all the history associated with America's space program.

When we returned, I was able to rest a little, hoping this time the launch would happen. It is difficult for the astronauts to be so close to a launch and then have to stop and start over again.

Once it got close to launch time we were hopeful the weather would hold up. The concern is similar to the night before —  low-lying cloud cover which would prevent a safe return of Endeavour in an emergency during launch to orbit.

The final weather update, presented during the final built-in hold before the 9-minute countdown, gave Endeavour the go ahead for launch.

With the countdown clock in front of us, and the shuttle sitting on the pad off in the distance, it was a very exciting countdown and then an amazing launch. The entire night sky lit up as it lifted off, and a few seconds later, we heard the silence broken from the sound of the shuttle's liftoff.

The sound reverberated through our bodies as we stood in amazement. I could feel the incredible pressure of the heated air displacement.

After taking initial photos of the blastoff, I had to stand back and watch the rest and just take it all in. I have never seen anything quite like it. it's truly amazing to see something that big and heavy blast off and leave this earth. If you have never witnessed one of these before, you should probably come see one of the last four scheduled launches.

A launch doesn't last long, but I can truly say that all the time and effort of coming down to photograph this launch was completely worth it. The amount of research, science and the entire process of training to put a man in space are incredible. Americans can truly be proud of what our country has accomplished.

I absolutely intend on seeing the remaining launches again and photographing history as it happens.