Well, I made it back to Florida at 11pm last night for a second attempt at seeing the space shuttle Endeavour make its last flight as STS-134. the launch was scheduled for 8:56 am, and I was supposed to get to the Kennedy Space Center by 3:30 am. Yikes!
I decided to push it a little, stay in a hotel in Orlando, and get a few hours sleep. I turned the lights off at just after 12 pm, but laid there, wide awake, until after 1 am. After waking briefly in a start, thinking I’d overslept, I woke again to the alarm at 4:10. By 4:30 I was on the road. (I’ve since discovered that I left my magic mouse behind. Hopefully, the hotel will ship it back to me soon. I miss it.)
I got to the visitors center at around 5:30. The traffic was light the whole way, just as it was two weeks ago for the last launch attempt.
I ate breakfast at the Orbit Cafe shortly after arriving. For some silly reason, a cheese omelet sounded good. Actually, it still sounds good. But that was easily the closest I’ve ever come to eating cardboard. Cardboard filled with cheese wiz.
After breakfast, I wandered around a bit. I took another look in the Explorer shuttle mockup. It still impresses me at how big the thing is. Or rather, how big the shuttle bay is. Much bigger than a school bus. (Volume-wise. Lengthwise, it’s probably about the same.)
I then wandered over to the NASA briefing area and sat and watched the video coverage for a bit when a guide came in with some news. They still had tickets for sale to view the launch from the causeway. Everyone in the room (it was mostly empty) got up and high-tailed it over to get in line for the busses. For $20 more, I’d get to see the shuttle on the launch pad. Woo hoo!
I got in line with older gentleman who also came over from the briefing room. We got to talking, and spent most of the next few hours hanging out together. His name was Wayne, and he’d worked at the space center in the early 60’s. Not only did he see a bunch of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo launches while working there, but he told a story about being pulled out of work one day to go wait in the parking lot for some mysterious reason. After a bit of waiting and wondering, a limo drove up, and President Kennedy got out and gave a short speech. That’s a bit different from my recent experience with a president at the space center.
We waited on the bus for about 30 minutes before they brought us over to the causeway, getting there around 8am. It’s only a mile closer, but the view was perfect! (OK, 6 miles out is still a looong ways away, but it was very easy to see what you were looking at.)
Wayne had a radio (VHF, maybe), so we could get the full update on launch status. Weather was always a risk. They’d been worrying about wind initially, but it was flat calm. Unfortunately, there was a low layer of clouds just starting to move over the launch site when we arrived. We were hoping it would pass completely by before the launch, but that didn’t happen.
As launch time approached, I was impressed at how quiet it was in the crowd. Every now and then, someone, like Wayne, would give some status, and you’d here it make it’s way across the crowd. As a hold at T-9 minutes was approaching its end, we heard them cycle through all “go/no-go” calls for each different aspect. Finally, when they got to weather, it was a “go”!
One of the coolest things to happen as the launch got closer, was that people turned to the other folks nearby and let them know what they were planning to do at launch time. I was behind a couple of guys with cameras with huge lenses, and they pointed out where they’d be standing, and where they’d be holding their arms. Another man said that he would be picking his son up and putting him on his shoulders. Imagine having that happen right as you’re trying to get your perfect photo? Very cool how everyone understood how everyone else around them would feel if their once-in-a-lifetime viewing opportunity were ruined at the last moment.
Then the launch!If you look closely, you can see the initial steam and exhaust as the main engines fired. I took this with my iPhone. I should have waited another couple of seconds before clicking. Here’s a closeup:
It’s hard to describe. I’ll eventually put up my video. [It’s here.] It’s not too bad considering that I was trying hard to view through my eyes, and not worry about the perfect shot.
But there were a few things that stuck out. It was bright. Really bright. We were looking somewhat towards the rising sun, and my eyes still needed to adjust to the brightness. It was really, really bright.
Wayne was taking pictures with a handheld Nikon D7000. He got some amazing shots. Here’s a pic from my iPhone of the screen on his camera. It’s totally amazing that the CCD didn’t saturate due to the brightness. That’s one heck of a camera. This capture of his shot doesn’t come close to showing the quality. You could zoom on his shot and see pretty good detail of the shuttle.
We started to hear it a bit before the shuttle hit the low lying clouds. It wasn’t very loud at first. But it got louder, and then louder. You could feel it. What a rumble! Wayne mentioned that that was one of the loudest shuttle launches he’s been to, and that it varies a lot depending on the wind.
The sight of the shuttle going into the clouds was one of the coolest parts. The clouds really lit up around it. I can only imagine how bright that was for the astronauts on board!
The next bit was disappointing. After hitting the clouds, there wasn’t much left to see. Every now and then it would peek through the clouds, but for the most part you only knew it was there by the sound. On a clear day, you’d normally get to see the solid rocket boosters separate and fall away. And on the best of days, Wayne said that you can track it nearly to the horizon. That’d be a sight!
A few minutes later everyone started packing up and heading back to the busses and cars. A little less than an hour later, we were back at the visitors center.
My flight wasn’t until 5:30, so I figured I had enough time to hang out for a bit. Wayne had been telling me that the Hubble 3D IMAX movie wasn’t to be missed, so we got in line. Unfortunately, it wasn’t for another hour, so we went to the 10:30 showing of the Space Station movie, also in 3D. It was still pretty impressive. You got a real feeling for the tight quarters up there. Sure, the ISS is much bigger now than when the movie was filmed, but jeepers, I’m not sure I could handle it.
People had been warning me that it might take 5-6 hours to get back to Orlando, so I figured I better head out after the movie. Just like our last trip, it took less than an hour to get there. This time, I think I left before most other people. The parking lots were still very full. Two weeks ago, I think we left after almost everyone else.
Since I was there so early, I decide to get some BBQ for lunch at Sonny’s, just north of the airport. I’m still hoping to find some BBQ outside of Colorado that comes close to KT’s and The Rib House. Still, nothing has come close.
Once at the airport, I figured I should try to get onto an earlier flight. The one at 3:50 supposedly had no room, so I got on the standby list. And luckily, I made it onto the plane.
So, overall, a mixed trip. It stinks that the kids couldn’t come back to see the launch. And K and Sparkles too. But it wasn’t the most spectacular of launches due to the cloud coverage. I’m definitely glad I went, but it would have been good to have company (though hanging out with Wayne most of the morning was a pleasure).
Still, thinking back on it, it’s just so cool watching a rocket head up into space. It’s nothing like watching it on TV. On TV, you just don’t get a good feel for the power involved in sending the shuttle up. You don’t get a feel for how much is involved. It seems so humdrum, so ordinary. In person, it just seems amazing. So difficult. An amazing achievement.
(For kicks, Endeavour made the Astronomy Picture of the Day.)