Sunday, September 13, 2009

Space shuttle launch

I went to Florida two weeks ago to see the launch of space shuttle Discovery as part of the STS-128 mission. I've had a goal to see a shuttle launch for a long time, so when I found some cheap(ish...) tickets, I took advantage of the opportunity.

View STS-128 in a larger map

STS-128 was the last ever scheduled night launch, although plans for future flights could change. There are only six more shuttle flights, and then the shuttle program will be shut down in 2010. After that, there will be no more US-launched manned space flights until the late 2010's when Project Constellation fires up. (Or should I say if it fires up. A report released last week by the Augustine Commission raises serious concerns about the project's financial viability.)

I discovered the tickets late Saturday night, emailed my boss to see if I could leave for a few days, and bought the tickets as soon as I heard back. I took a red eye flight late Sunday night and arrived in Orlando on Monday morning for a launch that night a little after 1 a.m.

The Monday night launch was scrubbed 10 minutes before liftoff due to bad weather, and rescheduled for Tuesday night. On Tuesday I arrived at Kennedy Space Center only to find out that the launch was scrubbed again, this time for mechanical problems (a valve in the fuel-filling system that indicated that it hadn't closed all the way). My flight back to California was early Wednesday morning, which would have been perfect if the shuttle had launched. It didn't launch, though, and after thinking for a while, I decided to stick it out and wait for the launch. After all, this was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

I blissfully slept through my flight back to California and decided not to book return travel until after the shuttle launched—whenever that might be. I would return by Monday at the latest, since the launch window extended only through Sunday night.

I stayed in Orlando and worked remotely for the rest of the week as the NASA teams worked through the mechanical problem. They announced on Wednesday night that they thought they understood the problem, and had developed a procedure to mitigate it if it happened again. However, they weren't going to attempt a launch until Friday night, in order to give everyone more time to get some sleep and put the finishing touches on plans.

Unfortunately, Kennedy Space Center decided for some unexplained reason that for the next launch attempt they would not honor my launch viewing ticket, which I had purchased from a tour company. They would, however, honor tickets purchased directly from NASA. I was pretty disheartened to learn that after all of the time and money I had spent on this, I might not be able to watch the launch from KSC.

I was determined to find a solution, though, so I hopped on craiglist and emailed the handful of people selling launch viewing tickets. I got a few responses, and none were positive. Then, at about 11 p.m. on Thursday night I got a phone call. It was a woman staying out by the space center, but she was flying out of Orlando the next day. I arranged to meet her at the Orlando airport to buy her ticket.

I arrived at the airport to buy the ticket, but an hour and a half after we were supposed to meet, she still hadn't shown up. I was starting to lose hope, but I knew there were only 30 minutes until her flight was scheduled to leave, so I decided to wait until then before giving up. Thankfully, a few minutes later she showed up! After she checked in, we exchanged money and tickets and then she ran off to the security checkpoint. Things were looking up! Since the tour company wasn't running from Orlando to KSC, I rented a car at the airport and then made the hour drive out there, stopping for a minute in Titusville to check out Space View Park—an alternate viewing site just in case the ticket I bought didn't work out for some reason.

When you pack for only two days, you don't bring a shaver. When two days turns into a week, this is what happens. Plus, you have to wear your souvenir shirt because you don't have any other clean clothes.

Feeling slightly like I was living Groundhog Day, I arrived at Kennedy Space Center later that day for the third time. I waited around for a while, monitoring the weather and mission updates on my iPhone. A thunderstorm moved in and rained for about 30 minutes earlier in the evening, then moved out. I just hoped that no thunderheads would pop up close to the launch site as the countdown neared zero.

Thunderstorm at KSC

...but then a rainbow! (Those are full-size models of the shuttle at the visitor center, not the real thing.)

The fueling of the shuttle's external tank proceeded flawlessly (in contrast to Tuesday night's troubles), and about three hours before the launch, I headed out to the causeway, which is the closest public viewing site. There were far fewer people there on Friday night, since the tour companies had been turned away, which meant I got a real chair near the speakers and countdown clock. It was a much better situation than Monday night.

Me in front of the countdown clock, about an hour before launch. That white speck over my left shoulder is the shuttle. (The clock doesn't read an hour because of built-in holds in the launch sequence.)

As the countdown clock neared T-30 minutes, I started to get nervous. Like, heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping nervous. The launch had been scrubbed twice already, and my body was getting ready for another tense situation.

The key factor was weather. The evening's earlier storm had cleared out, but there were several storm cells that had appeared about 35 miles away. Anything within a 20-mile radius could cancel the launch, and 30 minutes was plenty of time for those storms to move in. The chief astronaut (who was not on the shuttle for this mission) was flying around in a trainer jet, monitoring the weather from the sky, and mission control in Houston was monitoring it remotely.

Thankfully, the weather held out as the clock continued to count down. Soon the launch controller was announcing over the PA system that the arms were retracting from the shuttle, the APUs were starting up, and and then a minute before midnight it was down to 5-4-3-2-1, IGNITION!

First 10 seconds (or so) of launch.

The small patch of light across the water suddenly became a giant ball of fire. It grew slowly over several seconds until it was as bright as the sun, illuminating everything for miles. The ball of light seemed to hover on the pad for a few seconds, and then it began to rise into the sky—slowly at first, but quickly gaining speed. The crowd cheered, and we all watched in amazement (which some of my neighbors expressed in colorful language) as the shuttle started on its way into space. There was a light cloud above the launch complex, which was beautifully illuminated by the rocket engines' plumes. It was an incredible sight.

66 seconds after launch

Since we were six miles away, the sound didn't reach us for about 30 seconds. When the sound did come, it was amazingly visceral. It wasn't just a loud noise that you heard, it was a deep, powerful rumble that you could feel. It stirred up small waves on the water, it shook the air, and it shook us. The sound is something you can't record. You just have to be there.

We watched for several minutes as the shuttle arced higher and higher into the sky, heading out over the Atlantic. The launch controller continued to announce the shuttle's location, and by the time the light of its engines faded into the deep night sky, it was almost 500 miles downrange. It's amazing that we could see something that far away—and amazing that something could move that far away that quickly.

Just minutes after the shuttle was out of sight, I bought a ticket back to California on my iPhone. Thankfully, my last-minute ticket cost only $150. After spending much more (a few times more...) than I had planned on this trip, I was glad that the return flight wasn't too expensive.

Traffic back to Orlando was horrible, which wasn't a welcome event at 2 a.m. However, I made it back, got a bit of sleep, and then headed back out to KSC again. (Yes, I'm crazy.) My flight didn't leave until 5 p.m., and I hadn't seen the shuttle launch complex, Vehicle Assembly Building, or Saturn V (Apollo moon rocket), since they didn't offer tours on launch days.

Vehicle Assembly Building, where they put the shuttle together. At 525 feet tall and covering 8 acres, it's the largest one story building in the world. It has its own weather in the top. In the foreground is the Crawler-transporter, which transports the shuttle from the VAB to the pad at at a max speed of 1 MPH. You might have seen it on Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel.

Saturn V: the amazingly huge Wernher von Braun-designed rocket that took Apollo astronauts to the moon. The thrust chamber of each engine is over 12 feet in diameter. You could stack up two of me across any of those openings.

I did a quick tour, drove back to Orlando, turned in my rental car (10 minutes before the 24 hours was up!), and then headed to the airport. I arrived back in San Francisco a bit before midnight, and made it back to my apartment around 1 a.m. It had been a long trip, but the launch was amazing, and I had checked off a life goal. Mission accomplished!

More pictures in the gallery.


I See Badgers said...

That looks like it was awesome! I've been watching the tv show "Defying Gravity" and it makes you want to be an astronaut even more...I wonder if they got funding from NASA now that I think about it. hmm

Have an awesome day Bruce and know that you have a place to crash if you are ever in Richmond, VA


amanda said...

Sweet summary! Too bad you ran out of shirts and spent way more money than you wanted, but that's so cool you got to check off something from your list!

p.s. sorry dave never answers the phone. I guess we should learn by now, but the phone is always in a different room. maybe we'll call you tonight?

p.p.s did you ever get my email?

Shanna Selin said...

Finally! It is about time you wrote a blog post about this! In fact, it is about time you wrote a blog post!

Unknown said...

That's pretty dang awesome. I won't lie. It's a popular story in my family that for one of the science fairs my dad won, he got a free ticket to the Apollo 13 launch. Unfortunately, he was a poor farm boy and couldn't afford the plane tickets to get to the I guess the moral of my story is that you're lucky you could afford to stay and see it! :)

Christensens said...

It's nice to hear about your trip. There was a lot more going on there than I knew about. I'm glad you finally got to see it.

Sceganation said...

That's awesome Bruce! I'm very jealous. Glad it finally worked out in the end.

Anonymous said...

That was a great story, hopefully I won't go through that when my girlfriend and I head out to view STS-129 launch!!!!

SusanVA said...

My husband and I, both in our 60's and wanting to see a shuttle launch before the shuttle is retired, have tickets for the 2/7 launch at 4:39 a.m. I'm having second thoughts about going as the middle-of-the-night launch is going to be a hardship for us. So I was surfing the web to get some inspiration from someone who had been there. Your wonderful, colorful accounting is all I needed! Thanks so much for posting.

Bruce said...

Have fun, Susan!