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Monday, May 11, 2009

My odds are improving


Today I saw my 2nd shuttle lift-off live, on my 4th attempt. It was astonishing.

We started the day at 4am and left the hotel at 5:15am to drive 11 miles to Kennedy Space Center. They opened at 5:30 on this special day - launch day - and we only spent a little while waiting outside in a tired stupor.

We had breakfast with an astronaut at 7:30am (Mark C. Lee, who worked on Hubble once before and was the first man to have an untethered spacewalk - he used a jet pack). We got a photo op with him afterward and then went to see a IMAX movie to kill some time before we had to board the buses to the causeway where we were going to watch the shuttle lift off.

We got a quick lunch in after the movie and then stood in line waiting for the buses to be cleared for departure. Finally, after baking a while, they were. It's about 15 minutes out to the NASA causeway.

The causeway is just a road going over the water, and there's a little dip enough for thousands and thousands of people to sit and watch. It's 6 miles from the launch pad and the closest place non-VIP people can be. There's a relatively unimpeded view of the launch pad - only a small island with some trees slightly obscuring the shuttle. But you can see the orange top of the external tank and some of the rocket boosters in the distance.

We waited about 2 hours in the sun - it was SO hot. But, it was just fun to listen to everyone and watch the crowd. After about an hour I wandered around to stretch the legs and found a much better location that had speakers right next to it. They pipe in the engineering/flight director talk over this and that helps us know what is going on, so we moved to that area.

There was a brief 30 minutes or so of concern as they saw some ice build-up on the connection from the external tank (that holds liquid helium and hydrogen at around -400 degrees) to the orbiter. They decided it wasn't a concern. We also watched some big clouds build up (on the ride home they became thunderstorms, but during countdown it was not an issue). Nevertheless at T-20 minutes, then T-9 minutes, all was go for launch.

The last 9 minutes goes by really rapidly. The entire crowd, which has been chattering for hours suddenly goes silent and the flight director's voice over the loudspeakers is especially clear. You hear the different things happening - retracting the crew arm, starting the auxiliary power units, removing the beany cap. About a minute after the APUs start (T-5 minutes), we could hear a low grumble roll across the causeway - these are the APUs starting up. They are very loud.

Everything takes on this unreal feeling as you go into the last 2 minutes. It's eerily quiet except for the occasional voice over the speakers: "90 seconds".... "60".... "30 seconds, we have auto-sequence start". And then it's just holding your breath.

We could hear the 10 second countdown over the speakers as the igniters beneath the engine engaged, and then the "we have liftoff", and then you could see in the distance the steam rising from the little tiny area where the orange cone is, obscuring it. And then there's a bright fire as the shuttle leaps off the pad. The TV does not do this justice by any means: it is a solar fire, four times the length of the shuttle, and it's like the shuttle climbs this bright flame up.

The crowd cheers wildly: we can see, just over there, Atlantis lifting off, and arcing to the east in a very deliberate climb, long steam trail following the burning fire. It's about 40 seconds after liftoff and a subsonic sounds reaches you from the launch pad and climbs up the trail so recently occupied by fire. You can feel it in your heart, in the ground, in your body. It's a huge rumble that begins to echo across the water and ascends into a great crackling atmospheric vibration that you feel in your whole body.

Without expensive cameras and binoculars, the shuttle is gone in about 3 minutes. You realize the flight controllers are still talking about the status of the engines and trajectory. So there's nothing to do but board the bus and head back to the center. Still, you board the bus changed, and moved, and astonished.

And so we made our way back to Titusville, satisfied and glad for a clean launch... tired, happy, ready to have two days of vacation not shuttle-related. We're a little dazed. It's 1 part tired, 1 part hot, 1 part oh my god.

Be sure to check out my pictures on Facebook. I'll send you a link if you email me or comment. I also have about 3 minutes of video - from T-30 to T+2:30, with the flight controllers talking and the crackling in the sky.

We are go for launch... part 1

It's 4:45am EDT and Dawn and I are about to leave to head over to KSC. Yeah it's early, but we're supposed to be there by 6am to have breakfast with an astronaut. That's actually going to happen at 7:30 or 9:00 or something. But it was our suggested arrival time and we're going to try and not get caught up in the crowds. It's easier to wander around there in the morning than fighting traffic all morning long.

On my first trip to KSC I got there super early like this and there was still thousands of people watching and waiting.

Today is looking very favorable for a launch - it'll be my second out of 4 attempts. Right now, the shuttle is being filled with liquid propellants. It's many tons of fuel and takes a while and they have to make sure everything is pressurized right. They have a gazillion other things to do today, also, before the 2:01 launch time.

If you want to follow along online, I recommend You'll get uninterrupted coverage without newscasters falling over themselves and quoting ridiculous things. Also, the Discovery channel will be following the mission live about an hour before launch. The regular news/entertainment channels will show coverage of the launch the last 5-10 minutes before the launch.

I probably won't post again until after liftoff. I'll throw a status or two up on facebook. Here we go - looking forward to another launch! Go Atlantis!!

Sunday, May 10, 2009


If you are a member of Facebook, you can find pictures from the last two days on my profile. I think that link will get you in.


Today is a quiet day after the busy-ness of yesterday. Yesterday was go go go, exertion, walking, etc. This morning after a languid breakfast at Waffle House (right next to our hotel), we drove out to the Merrit Island Nature Preserve to go on the Blackwing nature drive.

I did this drive with Tom a couple years ago, and it was a nice quiet drive with a lot of waterfowl, other birds, alligators, and so on. It must have been a different time of year because the place was practically dried up and the drive was very quiet. It's about a 4-mile drive that took us about an hour (we stopped at a bunch of the stops and walked around some). We took a few pictures and I took some videos of some birds flying overhead, small crabs along the shoreline (hundreds of them!) and some interesting plantlife. It was very still and quiet out there. We were constantly on the lookout for alligators about to spring out of the water's edge. Dawn likes to squat down and take pictures of butterflys on flowers at the water's edge. The image of her being dragged under was pretty powerful and I kept a sharp lookout. And I made continual fun of her.

After the drive tour we went further north on Merrit Island and saw a couple of manatees - they are really quite huge! It was really really hot and humid still and after standing outside for a while we both got a touch of sunburn. We were going to go to the beach near the refuge area, but they close it down 24 hours before a shuttle launch because it's really close to the pads. We departed the area at 1pm and headed back to Titusville.

We picked up a few groceries to try and stave off the inevitable feeling of bleh that you get when you've been eating better (I have been lately) and then you eat junkfood. What made me want to eat that way in the past I will never know. Glad to see my diet is in the slow motion process of changing.

Anywho... we are back at the hotel, resting up. We have an early morning arrival at KSC (6am) so we are resting and restoring fluids today. Tomorrow morning we dine with an astronaut at 7:30am, then wander around until its time to get on the bus to go to the causway site - it's the closest the public can get to the shuttle launch. 6 miles and unimpeded by clouds. It will be clear, directly in front of us, and LOUD. I can't wait!!

As of this posting, everything is looking really good for tomorrow's launch. They roll back the service structure at 5pm EDT so the shuttle is exposed. Tomorrow morning they start fueling the tank with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Around 10:30am EDT they start loading the crew into the shuttle.

Off to nap, read, and drink water. It's SO hot and bright here. And it's only May.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Tropical climate

A journey to see the space shuttle launch is a journey fraught with positives, negatives, and heat.

The trip so far has been a very good one, but I always forget how hot and humid it is here in Florida. I am not sure how I survived my first unprepared trip here in 2005 ( Nevertheless Dawn and I had a great, if tropical day. Ever present is the heat and humidity that turn the 95 degree weather into 105 degrees.

We spent 10 hours at the Kennedy Space Center complex today, going on tours, wandering from place to place seeing the sights.

Our first stop was the viewing gantry, about 1-2 miles from shuttle launch pad itself, and today was a very rare sight. There are two shuttles on the pads right now - this is really rare. Normally, the space shuttle goes to the International Space Station and they have refuge there if something goes wrong with the shuttle. They can always ride a Soyuz module home or wait for another shuttle. Now, since Atlantis is servicing the Hubble Space Telescope right now they will be in a different orbit. If something goes wrong they don't have any fuel to fly to the other orbit where the ISS is. Most people don't realize this but the orbiter itself has no fuel (except what is needed for maneuvering). The 3 main enginers are only used during launch, and those are fed from the giant orange external fuel tank. As soon as the orbiter reaches orbit, no more fuel and the shuttle is a glider that maneuvers some. So, the upshot of all this is that they have Endeavour waiting on the other pad as backup. If something goes wrong with Atlantis while they are servicing the Hubble, Endeavor can launch quickly with only 2 people on it to go on a rescue mission. So, two shuttles on the pad - and this is likely the last time it will be seen that way because the remainder of the shuttle missions are all to the ISS.

After that stop (lots of stairs in the heat), we rode a bus over to the Saturn V exhibit. It's really quite good. I always get teary-eyed at the video of the countdown of Apollo 8 in the old control room. I get a little overwhelmed with the challenge of overcoming huge odds, competition of the space race, and the triumph of innovation. Who knew I'd be wired that way? After the moving simulation, you go into a big room where the Saturn V is housed. It's really astonishing - huge, and a monumental engineering achievement. 2 million independent systems in it. Millions of pounds of thrust - designed to propel astronauts from the intense gravity of Earth to the gravity of the moon. It's unabashedly phallic.

Afterwards, we went to the International Space Station preparation room, where they make the modules and test the equipment going on the shuttle up to the ISS. It's the live processing facility and on workdays you can see people wandering around and doing whatever it is they do to get these huge things ready for spaceflight.

We eventually headed back to the visitor center and grabbed a late lunch. Ravenous! Afterward we went on the Shuttle Launch Experience - a ride that simulates the launch of a shuttle, from the inside. Videos on the walls with former shuttle commanders say they helped design the thing and it's the closest real sensation to an actual launch. The ride really shakes you around and simulates 3G of gravity and weightlessness. It's really really fun.

Beyond that, I switched out our 7pm Star Trek tickets to 4:30pm and we caught the matinee. I won't give it away, but I really want to see it again already. It's really fun and fast-paced. Honors the past but paves it's own way. Like it!

We wound up the day in the space shop, of course. I have new t-shirts and hats and a couple of other fun things. We left, exhausted, and drove back in to Titusville to have dinner, ice cream, and now I can barely keep my eyes open. I'm still warm, even after a shower. It was a hot day, but oh-so-fun. Even the weird little bugs that swarm all over the hotel building and sneak into the rooms at night aren't bothering me. I'm off to bed, to have a restful day before our early morning trip to KSC again on Monday. Launch days turn KSC into an entirely different place, but I'll tell you about that after Monday's launch goes off successfully. :)

Have fun, more later.

Fourth time the charm?

I'm back in Florida on vacation. Who knew vacation for me would entail trying to see the space shuttle launch again. This time I brought Dawn.

This is just a quick note - we're off to Kennedy Space Center to go get on the tours and see the sights. They close a lot of the up close tours on launch day and I'd like a chance to see two shuttles on the pads - it's likely not going to happen again.

I'll take lots of pictures and post them here and on my Facebook page later when we return. Bonus part of the day? Watching Star Trek this evening at the KSC IMAX. How freaking cool is that??

The shuttle launch is 2:01 pm EST on Monday, May 11. We have to get up at the respectable hour of 4am to be there early enough to dine with an astronaut for breakfast, get on buses to go out to the NASA causway, and sweat in the tropical Floridian heat. Fun times ahead!!

Catch you soon...