Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Last Launch at Night

With the Shuttle Endeavor's early Sunday morning launch scrubbed, the stars and planets were lining up to make it possible for us to be much closer for the next launch attempt at 4:14am on Monday morning. We decided to go for it.

After Sunday breakfast with all the wedding attendees staying at our hotel, we packed up, checked out, and pointed the car toward the Kennedy Space Center, 130 miles north. We took the Florida Turnpike to Ft. Pierce where we picked up I-95 north until we could cut over to A1A, the beach road, near Vero Beach. We took A1A all the way to the city of Titusville, which sits due west of the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and about 12 miles from the launch pad. The wide Indian River separates Titusville from KSC, and provides a broad unobstructed view of the launch pad from anywhere along the shoreline.

We arrived in Titusville a little after 3pm and the parking areas along the river were already starting to fill in. Our first thought was to find a cheap motel near the shoreline, get a few hours of sleep, wake about 4am, and walk over to a viewing spot for the launch. That plan was dashed as we discovered most hotel rooms were booked, and those that had rooms available were miles away and were charging $125 and up. After talking it over we decided that paying big money for a few hours of sleep and still having to get in the car and fight traffic and battle for a parking spot at 4am was foolish. Alternatively, we could find a spot along the shore now and "camp" right there until launch time. That was our decision. We'd camp in the car tonight -- haven't done that in a while. After stocking up with a few essentials at a local grocery store, we found our spot on the beach... with the launch pad visible through our windshield... and settled in for a few hours of rest.

I can't sleep on airplanes and cars are only little better. I might have slept 3 or so hours, but it wasn't a good deep sleep. And every time I stirred there seemed to be a cloud bank over the launch pad... the fear lingered that this attempt might also be scrubbed for the same reason as the previous night's.  When I awoke a little after 3am, I decided to stay awake and tune into the NASA web site for all the details about the launch. I learned it was still on and they weren't talking about the weather or clouds or anything. The launch vehicle was in great shape and there were no problems at all. It was slowly becoming apparent that this might actually happen.

As launch time approached the volume of people and cars and congestion and activity grew. There were cars parked along both sides off the highway behind us, and in every available spot anywhere nearby. Anticipation was heavy in the air.

At T minus 9 minutes, we got out of the car and walked closer to the shore. We made the decision NOT to take a camera as it could detract from our enjoyment of the event as we fidget with camera settings, viewfinder, focus, etc. There would be hundreds of photos and videos available online in the following days that we could choose from. So with nothing more than a pair of binoculars, we waited.


Suddenly, the flame from the main engines starting at 6 seconds before launch was the signal we've waited for... it's time to fly. When the big solid boosters ignited it was impossible to stop the launch. The sky brightened to an artificial daylight... the launch vehicle started to climb and the brightness increased... there was no sound other than the crowd's screams of awe and amazement. Endeavor and her collection of rockets and fuel tanks climbed higher and through a couple layers of light clouds, which made the spectacle even more exciting and visually interesting.

We were 12 miles away and sound travels a mile in about 5 seconds. So it would take the sound almost a minute to make the journey to Titusville. As that time approached someone made the observation that the sound waves were visible on the surface of the illuminated river -- you could see the approaching shock wave of launch roar. It was amazing. The low rumbling rippling roar finally overcame us and added sound to a most memorable event.

We saw the solid rocket boosters burn out about 90 seconds after launch, and separate from Endeavor and it's fuel tank as the climb to space continued. The depleted boosters are so hot they glow as they tumble back to earth and were visible with the naked eye from our vantage point. They will be recovered and floated back to KSC to be refueled and reused again on a later flight.

The crowd stood there and watched until well after Endeavor faded from sight. We did too.

There are only 4 more launches of the Shuttle system left before the whole program is shut down, and none of them are scheduled at night. As things stand right now, we saw the last night launch.

For the next few days I'll have a video or two of this affair on our front page at www.tdhoch.com. Check it out for a better idea of what we experienced. We'll also put some photos of the experience in an online photo album for you to see.

Smiling from ear to ear and one more thing crossed off my bucket list...
Thom