After a lifetime as a space geek and 22 years of working on NASA projects, from Spacelab to ISS to Ares I, I had still not witnessed a space shuttle launch in person. Not that I hadn't tried. In June 2009, my family and I spent a week on the Space Coast, a week that saw no fewer than three scrubs for STS-127. We had made plans to attend the STS-134 launch in April 2011 until it was pushed back 10 days, conflicting with another commitment.
So it came down to STS-135, the final flight of the shuttle program, and our last opportunity to see this icon of human spaceflight in action. The launch was originally scheduled for late June, conflicting with our Boy Scout troop's summer camp. But past experience told me that Atlantis would not likely launch on that date and would more likely be pushed into July. So I set about making plans to visit the Space Coast. I managed to find a Holiday Inn Express in Cocoa Beach that still had rooms available in July. So I made reservations -- four reservations to be exact -- over four consecutive weeks in July. All could be canceled if necessary, but at least we had a room available throughout the month, whenever Atlantis might launch.
Next... where to view the launch? The STS-135 NASA Tweetup was out because it was for space tweeps only... no guests. I wanted to watch this historic event with my wife and children. I briefly considered the overpriced bus tours from Orlando going to the NASA Causeway, but quickly ruled those out. We began looking at viewing sites outside KSC property, such as Space View Park in Titusville. The Cocoa Beach Pier was just two blocks from our hotel, so that was a good fallback option if all else failed. Meanwhile, I had put my name on the list for seats on a company bus going to the Causeway. Being a NASA contractor with offices on the Space Coast, the company I work for regularly charters buses to the Causeway for shuttle launches. Of course, the list was rather long for these last few launches, but it was worth a shot. Finally, in mid-June, I got the email saying that we had seats on the bus. Yes! Our whole family would be able to watch the launch from the NASA Causeway, just about 7 miles from Pad 39A!
The launch date was finally set for July 8. I adjusted our first week's hotel reservation and finalized plans to drive the 12 hours to Cocoa Beach on July 6. This would give us one buffer day between arrival and launch, just in case something happened. Launch windows for STS-135 would be available on the 8th, 9th, and 10th, and then would close again until July 16th due to a planned Air Force launch from Cape Canaveral. So we would plan to stay at least through the 10th. If the mission failed to launch by then, we would reassess our options... perhaps drive home and return for the next attempt on the 16th.
Wednesday, July 6, arrived and Atlantis was still on schedule for a July 8 launch. The weather was the only issue... only a 30% chance that weather would cooperate on Friday. But the forecast improved for Saturday and Sunday. We loaded up our little SUV and hit the road at 5:30 a.m. CDT. It was a long haul. We lost an hour when we crossed the Georgia state line, putting our ETA around 7 p.m. EDT. Sure enough, after working our way through all the toll booths on the Beachline, we crossed the Bennett Causeway on A1A around 7:00 and got our first glimpse of the Vehicle Assembly Building several miles to the north. We strained in vain to identify Pad 39A among all the launch complexes. We arrived at our hotel, grabbed a quick dinner, stocked up on some groceries, and rested after a long day on the road.
Thursday morning we checked in at the company's "Launch Guest Operations Center." We received t-shirts and badges for launch day and were told to arrive by 6:45 a.m. on Friday morning to board the bus. After a stop at Ron Jon's Surf Shop (where I picked up a really cool STS-135 t-shirt), we headed to the Air Force Missile & Space Museum at Cape Canaveral.
Via Twitter I had discovered that the SpaceX Dragon capsule that had flown back in December would be on display at the museum throughout the week. We arrived around mid-morning.
Falcon 9 rocket carrying this unmanned spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral on COTS Demo Flight 1. The Dragon orbited the Earth for three hours, conducting orbital maneuvering tests, and then splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. In so doing, it became the first commercial spacecraft to be sent into orbit and successfully returned to Earth. The Dragon is also one of the commercial vehicles vying to carry NASA astronauts into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in the coming years. Dragon represents the potential next step in the evolution of America's human spaceflight program, and I was glad to be able to share it with my kids, whose generation will live with the space policy decisions we are making today.
After touring the Air Force Missile & Space Museum and learning about Cape Canaveral's role in America's early space program, we spent Thursday afternoon dodging rain showers on Cocoa Beach. With the launch now less than a day away, the weather forecast was still 70% no-go for launch on Friday morning.
So Friday morning I awoke about 4:30 a.m. and got a shower before waking the rest of the crew (I'm really the only "morning person" in our family). The local weather report was still giving us only a 30% chance of favorable weather conditions at launch time, so I really did not expect a launch that day. I expected to have to get up and do the same thing the next day, only a little earlier. That's the way it goes in the space business.
We finally left our hotel shortly before 6:30 a.m. to meet the bus at the Hilton in Cocoa Beach. From the traffic on Twitter that morning, I realized how fortunate we were. Many others had already been up for hours staking out their spots along the Space Coast from which to watch the historic launch. Some had even camped overnight to reserve their spots.
We arrived at the Hilton and went inside to join the throngs of others waiting to board their buses. (Apparently the Hilton is the place in Cocoa Beach for catching a bus to a NASA launch.) 6:45 came and went, as did 7:00... and still we did not board the buses. I knew that NASA had scheduled a weather briefing for 7:00 a.m., at which time they would announce whether they planned to proceed with launch preparations, so I assumed our coordinators were waiting for a "go" from this briefing before boarding the buses. It was an overcast morning, muggy as usual, but no rain yet. It was close to 7:30 a.m. before the lists were finally posted telling us which bus we were on. I jostled to the front of the crowd to find that we were assigned to Bus 1. Great! Bus 1 had to be good, right?
We followed the rest of the crowd out the door and started looking for our bus. There were at least a dozen buses lined up in the parking lot. Some were going to the NASA Causeway and some to the Banana River viewing site; there were buses for at least two different companies; and they were not lined up in any perceivable order. Finally someone directed us down the line to the very last bus in the line, near the other end of the Hilton parking lot. Of course... Bus 1 was at the very end of the line! We stood in line again, showed our photo IDs, and finally boarded the bus. By the time we left Cocoa Beach, it was around 8:00 a.m. Launch was still on schedule for 11:26 a.m.
Our bus made good time until we reached the line of traffic waiting to get through the KSC gate. It was backed up well past Shuttle's Dugout. There were many other tour buses like our own, along with packed family cars sporting car passes for the Causeway. We made ourselves comfortable in the air conditioned comfort of the bus and hoped that the skies would clear before launch time.
Our bus finally made it through the KSC gate and we took the right onto the NASA Parkway, heading east toward the Causeway. Now we could clearly see the VAB looming large a couple of miles to our left. The excitement was building! As we made our way onto the Causeway, everyone strained to get that first glimpse of Atlantis on the launchpad. Someone finally spotted it and pointed out the location. There she sat, a small white dot far to the north. I could just make out the shape of the orbiter itself. It was at this point that I realized I had left my binoculars back at the hotel. So much for being prepared!
Our bus finally came to a stop in one of three rows of buses lining the Causeway... roughly 150 buses in total. We received our final instructions from our coordinators and filed off the bus, receiving our cool "Launch Guest" buttons as we went. We set out to one of the large white tents under which folding chairs had been set up. We grabbed four chairs and headed down toward the water to stake out our spot. We found a good location that lined up Pad 39A between two buildings on the far shore, making it easy to keep our eye on Atlantis. It was around 9:30 as we settled in to wait for launch. There was no rain, but still a good deal of cloud cover. The weather was still very much a factor.
We sat there listening to the NASA launch commentator George Diller over the loudspeakers that line the Causeway. From this I could tell that technically everything was looking good for launch. And as the morning wore on, the weather started to look a little more promising, too. The clouds still lingered, but they were not growing darker, and there was still no rain. In fact, as we entered the last hour before the scheduled launch, we began to see a few breaks in the clouds, and the chances for favorable weather at launch went from 30% to 60%.
Mike Leinbach polled his people for final "go/no-go" calls. The clouds were scattering and thinning, and it looked like any rain was going to hold off. I could see Atlantis in the distance, now shining brilliant white as the sunlight finally found its way through to Pad 39A. My optimism was building. Could it be? Would we actually get to see a launch today?!
At the end of the final "go/no-go" poll, we heard the launch director tell Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson, "Good luck to you and your crew on the final flight of this true American icon. Good luck, godspeed and have a little fun up there." To which Ferguson replied, "Thanks to you and your team Mike. We're completing a chapter of a journey that will never end. The crew of Atlantis is ready to launch." With this, applause erupted on the Causeway, and more than a few of us had lumps in our throats and tears welling in our eyes.
Of course, everyone now knows what happened as the clock reached T-31 seconds, the point at which Atlantis's computers were supposed to take control. The countdown clock suddenly stopped, and we all heard the words "due to a failure" come through the loudspeakers. There was some confusion around me as the crowd began to realize that the clock had stopped. From the communications being blasted across the Causeway, I could make out that something may not have retracted properly. The oxygen vent arm? More words were exchanged as "camera 62" was swung into position to check the position of the arm. The launch team quickly confirmed that the vent arm had retracted, and the countdown clock resumed, picking up where it left off at T-31 seconds.
As the final seconds ticked away, our family and everyone around us on the Causeway counted down, "3... 2... 1...". I heard the launch commentator call "Liftoff!" over the loudspeakers. I saw the plume of white smoke suddenly appear between those two buildings on the far shore, and Atlantis leaped from Pad 39A. As the shuttle cleared the smoke around the launchpad, the flames from the SRBs appeared, more bright and vivid than I had expected. This really caught me by surprise! It was a bright, vivid orange. In fact, on the home video that I shot, you can hear my reaction, "Whoa!", as the flame becomes visible. Watching on television simply does not do it justice.
NASA press site, but impressive nonetheless. The air around us was alive with mini sonic booms. Then a few seconds later, the ship appeared again through a break in the clouds, roaring skyward on a column of fire and smoke, a beautiful sight to behold! Go, baby, go!
As we walked back to our bus, I was relieved that Atlantis had launched more-or-less on time. We now had the whole weekend ahead of us to enjoy without having to worry about rising early to catch another bus. And yet I was sad, too, that it was over. The experience had passed.
KSC Visitor Complex and the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. We had a blast (pun intended) riding the Shuttle Launch Experience at the KSCVC, and we toured KSC by bus, visiting the Launch Complex 39 Observation Gantry and the Apollo/Saturn V Center. I sat in the captain's seat on the U.S.S. Enterprise (NCC-1701) and walked across the Service Arm used by the Apollo 11 crew to enter the Command Module Columbia on their way to the Moon in July 1969. My son and I joined a crowd of other space enthusiasts to welcome the last shuttle SRB as it made its way through Port Canaveral after being retrieved at sea.
What an experience! Being able to share it with my wife and children made it all the sweeter. We spent a fabulous week on the Space Coast, and we were witnesses to history.
Now it is time to move forward... to look to the future. I am convinced that humanity's future is among the stars. In the words of Carl Sagan: "All civilizations become either spacefaring or extinct." It is our duty to future generations to keep the dream alive... to carry the torch forward. Let us dream big and reach for the stars!
[More pictures from our trip are available here on Flickr.]