Pellissippi Science Club travels to final Atlantis liftoff

“It’s like a big cotton ball of smoke. Then you see the shuttle come up out of that. You’re seeing it happen, but it’s silent. When you finally hear the sound, it’s so powerful you can feel it in your chest—and we were six miles away.”

Jerry Burns, Pellissippi State Community College chemistry professor, says he was “absolutely blown away” by the May 14 launch of the space shuttle Atlantis.

“You can’t comprehend the magnitude and power of it by watching it on TV,” he said.

Burns and Kathleen Affholter, assistant professor of geology at Pellissippi State, were among the faculty and staff who accompanied members of the student Science Club to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to witness one of the last three launches before the space shuttle program is shut down.

“It was a tremendous sight—very exciting to stand with hundreds of other people, all hoping for the same outcome: a successful liftoff,” said Affholter. “I still am amazed that the shuttle gets into orbit in about four minutes, where it cruises around 17,000 miles per hour! I felt very fortunate to have had this opportunity to see the last Atlantis launch.”

David Hamblin, Science Club treasurer, came up with the idea of going to the launch and wrote to U.S. Rep. John Duncan for the free passes required.

“The launch meant something personal to me because I’m going into mechanical engineering and aerospace engineering,” Hamblin said. “The feeling of being at the same site where the entire Apollo program originated gives you chills.”

For the money needed to make the trip, the students competed with other clubs on campus to gather the most cans, bottles, phonebooks, paper and cardboard. The competition was part of the eight-week RecycleMania, a national contest that involves more than 600 colleges and universities.

“We had a weigh-in every week,” said club member Katie Donaldson. The Science Club finally won with 5,987.5 pounds. The prize was $500 awarded by Pellissippi State’s Student Life and Recreation Office, which also supported the Science Club trip with additional funds.

“It was worth all the work,” said Donaldson, “because the shuttle launch was an amazing experience. I’m glad we all got to go.”

The Science Club also participates in such activities as an annual on-campus Arbor Day celebration and water testing in area streams. To watch a video of the group’s shuttle launch experience, go to To learn more about Pellissippi State, visit or call 865-694-6400.

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