While I’m not the biggest astronaut and “human spaceflight” nut, I have always wanted to see a shuttle launch…or a rocket launch…okay, I wanted to see something big with fire behind it rise up into the sky. Given that the shuttle program was coming to an end, I began to realize that I needed to get on the ball and hustle down to Florida for a launch. A small number of NASA employees are elligible to get tickets to see the launch from the NASA causeway – you know the place with the giant countdown clock that you see on TV? Since these last several launches were so well-attended, a lottery was instituted for these car passes to the causeway. I started putting my name in last fall, but never got picked. So, I did what members of the non-NASA public had to do, I gathered up my family and dragged them down to Florida, and staked out a claim on public land for the launch.
Because this has been such a crappy and hectic year, I wasn’t able to drag everyone (or even just my husband) down for launches earlier in the year. So, we were stuck going to the last launch…when a million people were expected to descend on the Space Coast. No problem. We could deal with it, if only for a day.
To make this a real event, I also invited my Mom and my aunt, Maggie. Mom flew out to DC ahead of time to enjoy July 4th in DC, then the three of us (Mom, Andrew, and me) piled into the car early Thursday morning and drove the 15 hours to Cocoa Beach. We met up with my aunt in Cocoa Beach – she had flown in earlier on Thursday and checked into our hotel. None of us was optomistic that we would see the launch – Friday’s forecast for launch was just 30%, as was Saturday; Sunday’s was a bit higher at 60%. We had to leave on Monday, so if the shuttle didn’t launch over the weekend, we wouldn’t see it. No matter – we would make an adventure out of it either way.
Friday morning we set the alarms for 3:00 AM with a goal of leaving for Titusville and Space View Park by 4:00 AM. As we drove, I checked the weather and launch forecast again – it still didn’t look good for the 11:26 AM launch time; 30% for “go” was predicted. We forged ahead anyway. Along the way, we passed cars and trailers parked along the road, and if we squinted we could see the bright spotlights lighting up the launch pad. We wondered if we should also stop…but our plan was Space View park, and we were sticking to it.
Traffic wasn’t actually bad until we were very close to Space View park – we circled around a bit, and finally found a pay parking lot charging just $15 (which, frankly, we didn’t care about – we just wanted to park the car and find a place to park ourselves). We had packed to be there all day – blankets, chairs, book bags and backpacks, a cooler with drinks and picnic fixings, picnic basket, bag of snacks – so we grabbed everything except the chairs, and trudged out to the park. It took a couple tries to figure out where exactly we should way, but eventually we staked our claim, laid out the blankets, and got ready to wait.
And wait. And check the status updates. And wait.
Each check of the shuttle status seemed to end with a version of the phrase, “the chance of launch remains at 30%”. So we were making plans for Saturday – deciding what we would do differently, where we might try to wait, and how early we might want to try to show up.
And as we waited, more and more people showed up. People were everywhere. Everywhere – including one dumbass and his (near-adult) boys on top of the Gemini program monument. Thankfully a few cops finally came through and made them get off of the monument.
Clouds threatened rain. We were “misted” on. Blue sky peeked in and out. We had no clue what the weather was going to do; if it would permit the launch today.
And waited. (Chocolate and potato chips might have been consumed before 10 AM.) And the crew continued to ready the shuttle, and the countdown and planned countdown-holds, continued. Each update, still with the caveat that launch was only a 30% probability.
Then word came down – they were exiting the final planned hold, with 9 minutes on the clock. Launch would happen! The weather cooperated, if barely, to permit the launch. We all waited, watching our clocks, listening to the flight control team on several radios. More people pushed into the park. I took Trevor and my camera and nudged my way up closer to the water – around the bush that threatened our view. We thought we were in the final 30-second countdown…the crowd counted (without a nearby radio). No launch. What happened? Then word came that there was a 30-second hold. The countdown started again (once a nearby onlooker pulled up the radio channel with the control room chatter). We counted along.
I held my camera over the heads of the crowd, aimed as best I could, and held down the shutter (in “sports, continuous” mode). It took a little bit for me to see the orange glow rising. The crowd was clapping, and we watched the glow rise with a cloudy-tail behind it. Unfortunately the clouds were low in the sky, so we soon lost view of the shuttle.
A few people started leaving, but the guys behind me kept saying, “wait for it, people, you don’t want to leave yet.” So I waited. And it seemed to take a while….and then I knew what they were talking about.
The sound. Or the feel. It’s hard to say. Certainly the sound of the rocket hit us, but it was more of a feeling. A rumbling deep in the gut that spread out to every part from my toes to my head. And it kept going for what seemed minutes, though probably less. And that is probably the memory I will carry from this experience – the rumble of a rocket thrusting a fragile vessile of human life into space.