Wauconda resident Steven Mathe said watching the final launch of the space shuttle Atlantis was one of the most amazing things he has ever seen.
The junior chemistry major at Carthage College was in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Friday at 10:28 a.m. when the space shuttle lifted off its launchpad and drove through the cloudy sky.
Mathe said he was nervous the planned launch would be delayed because of inclement weather, but jubilant when the shuttle fired and the huge plume of smoke rose up.
"It was absolutely incredible," he said via telephone moments after the launch. "It's just too hard to describe everything I saw. Wow."
Mathe and Amber Bakkum of Winthrop Harbor were among three Carthage College students who traveled to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to witness the launch as part of a mentoring program their Wisconsin university has with NASA.
The students are part of a program to help solve engineering problems in the space program, said Carthage physics and computer science professor Kevin Crosby of Pleasant Prairie, Wis.
Crosby said only 10 student research teams are chosen nationally to work with NASA on solving engineering problems in space. He said the Carthage group was in charge of developing a solution to measure the volume of fuel propellant left inside a storage tank in a zero-gravity atmosphere.
"There is no technology equivalent to a fuel gauge for zero-gravity environments," he said. "It's a long-term project. Our experiments are the first of its kind, and it's working out really well."
Crosby said the trip was supported by the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium, and Friday's launch was the first he has seen.
"It's really exciting for me," he said. "NASA allowed us to stand as close as we possibly could, but even at 3.5 miles away, you could still feel the vibration shake you. It was incredible."
Bakkum, a senior engineering major, said there were some tense moments when the countdown clock held at 31 seconds while launch control used video cameras to verify that a gaseous oxygen vent arm had moved out of the shuttle's path.
But with safety confirmed, controllers agreed to proceed with only 58 seconds left in the launch window.
"We were nervous it wouldn't get in because of the weather," she said. "But it launched. It was the best thing I have ever seen."
Knowing this was the space shuttle's last launch was upsetting, Mathe said.
"I'm sad about it, of course," he said. "But it was time to move on. NASA used the shuttles for 30 years, which is the longest time any orbital vehicle has been used in the space program. But any orbiter that comes after the shuttle will definitely have some very large shoes to fill."