Imagine a nine-year-old kid who, in 1984, was so fascinated with the first launch of the Discovery space shuttle, he painted it for a summer art class. Fast forward nearly 27 years and imagine that same kid watching the final launch of Discovery–in person–with his very own eyes.
Never would I have imagined being a mere 45 minutes away from Cape Canaveral, home of so many launches to space, during a scheduled launch. Once I found out about the scheduled launch of STS-133 Discovery during my stay in the southeast, I had to see it in person. Little did I know my wait would be 111 days. It was scrubbed five separate times and continually delayed for various reasons. But that’s alright; it gave me time to get my act together.
Almost like a nine-year-old kid again, I just assumed I could drive over to Cape Canaveral in my car, grab a spot a couple hours beforehand, and watch the shuttle launch. Right? Wrong! While many view the airborne shuttle from miles away, the actual launch pad itself can only be seen from a few special spots. Arguably the best free spot is in Titusville, just across the Banana River from the launch pad–about 11 miles. But I wanted closer than that! The closest spot (about three miles from the launch pad) is NASA property reserved for press, dignitaries, and NASA staff. That wasn’t going to happen. The other spot (just over 6 miles away) is on the NASA Causeway, a little strip of man-made land that connects Merritt Island with Cape Canaveral. This is also inside NASA property, so a special vehicle pass, a special visitor pass, and a special causeway pass are all needed to view the shuttle launch from here. And I found all three passes–on a good ol’ site called eBay! If I had really been thinking, I would have signed up for the NASA ticket lottery, but I had no idea that even existed and missed my chances of that by several months. Before you ask, I briefly entertained another option: renting my own plane and seeing it from the air. But NASA restricts airspace within 30 miles during a shuttle launch. So the causeway it was!
I had another issue: my camera lens. My Sony SLT-A55 is a sweet camera, but my longest lens is only 270mm. I needed more length, and once again I turned to the internet. I found a great place to rent camera lenses and equipment at lensrentals.com. For around $12/day, I was able to rent a $1500 400mm super-telephoto lens. It was so worth it!
With my tickets and gear in hand, I set off for Kennedy Space Center early in the morning on launch day. (Well, early for me–about 8AM.) By 9AM, I had passed through the magnetometers at the Visitor Complex, and had almost 8 hours to wait before the scheduled launch time of 4:50PM. So I went to see a movie! The admission price of the launch ticket includes a free showing of a 3D IMAX movie about the Hubble Space Telescope, appropriately called IMAX: Hubble 3D. Words cannot describe the “cool factor” of this movie. The images of the universe from Hubble’s lenses are absolutely jaw-dropping! Seriously, go see this movie! You will feel like a speck of sand in an ocean of boulders.
After waiting in line for the movie, and after waiting in line for food after the movie, I got to wait in yet another line to board one of dozens of buses to the causeway. After an hour wait, it was only about a ten-minute bus ride to the viewing area. As we were heading over, security stopped us to let the six astronauts pass by on their way to the launch pad–in a 1983 Airstream motorhome known as the astrovan! Overhead was a helicopter mounted with machine guns. After they passed, we were back on our way to our destination.
I ran off the bus and a made a beeline straight for a spot of grass with a direct view of the shuttle sitting on the launch pad. I couldn’t get there before several hundred others swarmed to the same spot, but I did get a spot in the second row–with nothing but water in between the launch pad and me. By the time the rest of the buses had all arrived, several thousand people surrounded me. Around 40,000 people watched from the Kennedy Space Center property, and an estimated 250,000-300,000 watched from the surrounding Space Coast. (I never knew this, but the Space Coast of Brevard County, Florida is the region around Kennedy Space Center. In fact, the region has the best area code out there: 321!)
So, really for the next three hours and 45 minutes, I sat in my chair and got a suntan. Food, beverages, and the all-important portable toilets were nearby. And loudspeakers blasted the live NASA communication and countdown. I had my iPhone with text alerts and Twitter updates, too. This came in handy because there were several tense moments when NASA had some delays, but the live audio feed was sometimes hard to understand.
The minutes and seconds leading up to launch were exhilarating! I think I checked my camera about 20 times to make sure all my settings were just right. The launch window for STS-133 Discovery was exactly ten minutes: from 4:45:27 PM to 4:55:27 PM. At about 4:40, we all heard the dreaded words, “no go” from the Range Safety Officer. Apparently there was an Air Force computer malfunction and the launch was in serious danger of yet another scrub. To this day, I think it was just the PR department creating anticipation. But they somehow fixed the glitch in a few minutes, and the crowd erupted when we heard the words, “Discovery is a go for liftoff!” It had come within two seconds of being scrubbed! Two seconds!
I had my eyes on my camera viewfinder and saw the first puffs of steam from the launch pad. Yes, steam and not smoke. NASA installs a sound dampening system made of 400,000 gallons of water. The hot exhaust hits the water and it turns to steam. Without it, the blast would break windows for miles around. So, once I saw the steam, I just held my finger down on the camera button, and fired off as many photos as I could take. Exactly 30 seconds after I saw the first puffs, the sound waves hit me, and I heard and felt the half-million pounds of thrust. When I looked up and saw it without using a lens, the overall brightness of the exhaust surprised me. It wasn’t as bright as, say, looking directly at the sun, but it was close. And with that, Discovery was on its way to a 12-day mission–for the last time.
On the bus ride back to the Visitor Complex, our bus driver–who had personally witnessed every shuttle launch but one–entertained the passengers with NASA trivia. Even if you don’t agree with the principles of spending billions of dollars to go to space, I guarantee the space program is part of your everyday life. WD-40, microwaves, titanium, disposable diapers, invisible braces, memory foam mattresses, ear thermometers, long-distance telecommunications, pacemakers, cordless tools, water filters (and much, much more) were all direct inventions of the space program.
Once back at the Visitor Complex, I got to wait some more–in traffic. I counted about 7 hours of waiting before the launch and about 4 hours of waiting after the launch–all for about two minutes of thrill. But, oh, was it worth it!