"It's a visceral experience," said Gray, who was present for the shuttle Endeavour's launch in May. "Watching it on TV, it's exciting. Intellectually you know that it's launching, but to be there in person you hear the sound that cannot be reproduced on television. There's no sound system that can reproduce that sound. Just the crackling of the solid rocket boosters once they ignite them, it's just amazing.
"And then the volume. You also can't get that because it just pounds your chest. It's like going to a rock concert. ... From that far away, it takes almost a full minute from that distance for the sound to reach you," he said, adding he will be viewing shuttle Atlantis' launch at a 10-mile distance. "So you watch the launch, you can see the thing go up and everybody's cheering, but there's no sound. It's just the weirdest thing. You wait and you wait. And it's 40 to 60 seconds before the sound hits you, and then when it hits it's continuous for 10 minutes. So it really is something."
As he watches Atlantis' ascent, which is scheduled to begin at 11:26 a.m., Gray will be providing commentary for Tellus' special viewing program. Starting at 11 a.m. in the museum's theater, the offering also will include a history of the shuttle program by Tellus' astronomer David Dundee and a video of the launch, provided by NASA.
"[The shuttle Atlantis] first flew in 1985, so it's coming up on its last mission," Dundee said. "The major part of the [12-day] mission is to deliver a final piece to the space station. ... The shuttle program made it possible for us to build a space station as big as it is. The space station is bigger than a football field. You can actually predict when it's going to come over Cartersville. You can see it. It's bright.
"It looks almost like a bright planet coming overhead. It takes a couple of minutes for it to make the whole trip across the sky but it's bright. And in order to bring up the components for that space station they needed a big spacecraft like the shuttle to do that. So the shuttle was actually built to accommodate those components, and the components for the space station were also exactly built so it would fit in the back of the payload of the shuttle."
According to NASA's website, www.nasa.gov, Friday's launch will be the 33rd flight of Atlantis and the final and 135th shuttle mission. Since the first shuttle flight in 1981, 355 individuals have entered space, with the final voyage featuring four astronauts: Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim. While the program has accomplished many feats -- such as conducting more than 2,000 experiments, docking with two space stations and deploying the Magellan and Galileo probes -- it also lost two shuttles due to accidents, which resulted in the deaths of 14 people.
For Gray, the end of the shuttle program is bittersweet, as he reflects on its numerous achievements and contributions to space exploration.
"It's sad to see this program end but we also have to remember that this mission was never designed to go on forever, and we don't need to be sending people in space on this particular craft anymore," Gray said. "It would be nice to have that heavy-lifting capability, the ability to lift cargo up into space. But what I am looking forward to though is that we have new missions and the astronauts themselves are kind of excited about that.
"They're talking about one of three possible targets: going to an asteroid, going to Mars or going back to the moon. And if they go back to the moon, establishing permanent research outposts on the moon and I think that's a logical choice. So I think NASA will constantly be exploring and looking for things to do. They've got some very talented people there and they're going to come up with some great science and great missions that are going to thrill us going forward for decades. So I'm looking forward to that."
Friday's program is one of many with ties to the U.S. space program that Tellus has presented in recent months. Some of its other offerings have ranged from a discussion led by NASA Astronaut Stephanie Wilson to "At the Controls," an exhibit consisting of 7-foot-tall panels with photographs of the cockpits of historic airplanes and spacecraft, like the space shuttle Columbia. On display through Nov. 13, "At the Controls" is the first temporary exhibit on loan from the Smithsonian Institution that Tellus has acquired since becoming a Smithsonian affiliate in 2009.
Encompassing 120,000 square feet at 100 Tellus Drive in Cartersville, Tellus is comprised of four main galleries -- The Weinman Mineral Gallery, The Fossil Gallery, Science In Motion and The Collins Family My Big Backyard -- a 120-seat digital planetarium and an observatory. Since it opened January 2009, the museum has attracted about 500,000 visitors.
Tellus' launch program is included in its regular admission -- $12 for adults, $10 for individuals 65 and older, and $8 for children ages 3 to 17 and students with ID -- and free for museum members and active military personnel with ID. For more information about the museum and its upcoming events and programs, call 770-606-5700 or visit www.tellusmuseum.org.