12 Apr 2010, 4:00pm
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Three, two, one… liftoff!

Space Shuttle STS-131 liftoff (NASA-TV)

Space Shuttle STS-131 liftoff (NASA-TV)

For a long time, my wife and I have wanted to see the launch of a Space Shuttle.  With the Shuttle program winding-down this year, we realized a couple of months ago that it was do-or-die time, so a little over a week ago, we packed-up our 18-month-old and headed down to Florida to see the April 5th launch, what is likely to be the last nighttime launch of a Space Shuttle.  And wow, am I glad we did.

Because tickets to the official NASA locations to watch the launch have been sold-out for a long time,¬†we¬†had determined¬†ahead of time¬†that¬†the best perch for the scheduled 6:21am EDT¬†launch would be somewhere in Titusville, the city of 45,000 or so NASA-centric souls across the Indian River from the Kennedy Space Center.¬† The¬†afternoon before, we reconnoiter the area for good vantage points.¬† Various web sources indicated the “place to be” was the apt-named Space View Park in downtown Titusville,¬†where the local space museum volunteers set-up loudspeakers broadcasting the NASA comm chatter and color commentary of the launch about 12 unobstructed miles from the launch pad.¬† My wife chats-up one of the volunteers who was roping-off some off-limits areas and asks what time we should be there to get a good seat.¬† “Don’t leave” is his advice.¬† Yikes.¬† Well, with an 18-month old in tow and no real provisions for spending the night (not to mention an already paid-for¬†hotel room back in Orlando), we decide to go back to said hotel and hit the rack early and get up in the crazy wee hours of the morning to hopefully get a decent spot.¬† As a hedge, we scout-out a few backup locations as well before heading back to O-town, where we set three different alarm clocks for a rude but hopefully guaranteed wakeup.¬† (We later overheard a story about a German family who missed the launch because their hotel¬†screwed-up their wakeup call.)

I can tell you that getting-up at 1:30am is rough, especially at my age, even if you’re excited about the reason for the red-eye awakening.¬† But we manage to drag ourselves out to our car in the dead of night, and the little one¬†doesn’t even stir.¬† The drive from Orlando to Titusville¬†is surreal– knowing it is the middle of the night, it¬†is weird to see as many cars on the road, all in a silent, dedicated¬†pilgrimage to Space Mecca.¬† Obviously, the toll road folks knew what to expect– all but one of the eastbound toll booth lanes on the Beachline Expressway¬†are staffed (with surprisingly happy people given the hour), whereas only one of the westbound lanes is open.

Upon arrival in Titusville at the ungodly hour of 2:30am, we¬†are greeted by a lively scene of vehicle and pedestrian traffic up and down US 1, which runs along the Indian River and offers most of the best locales for seeing a launch.¬† It could’ve been 2:30pm on Alamo Plaza for all the activity.¬† So our minds start racing–¬†is our preferred spot already¬†at capacity?¬† We double-checked our backup locations first– there¬†is still room there if needed.¬† But off we¬†go to Space View Park, fingers-crossed.¬† I drop my wife off at the corner¬†so she can¬†go see¬†if there is any place we can cram into.¬† A few minutes later she comes bounding back– yes, there is plenty of room.¬† Really?¬† I¬†am happily surprised.¬† So we park the car at a lot manned by the space museum folks ($10– not too bad), and we¬†are fortunate to get one of the last spots, and one right up front no less.¬† Grabbing our gear and kiddo, we head to the park.¬† Then my wife points-out where she thinks we can sit.¬† Uh-oh— what about the tree canopy above us??¬† We’ll see the liftoff, but not much more.¬† Ooo, she hadn’t considered that.¬† My heart sank.¬† But my wife is a trooper and¬†goes scouting for some empty space up in front of the trees.¬† And surely enough, there actually is¬†a fair amount¬†of¬†room just a few rows back from the¬†water’s edge¬†and just in front of the treeline– I guess new arrivals had been dutifully plopping-down at the rear.¬† So we¬†setup the¬†camping chairs¬†and settle-in with our 7-11 coffee¬†for the three-plus hours to launch, fingers now crossed that it won’t be scrubbed.

As the countdown continued, everything keeps progressing¬†suprisingly smoothly.¬† I guess after 130 of these, they’ve got this down to a science, even if it is still running mostly on 1980s technology.¬† There¬†are only two small glitches along the way, and both¬†are resolved within a few minutes.¬† The only other thing that could get in the way is the weather, and other than a slight chance of fog, which manifests itself¬†for about 15 minutes¬†as a low cloud ceiling about¬†90 minutes¬†before launch, the weather is actually perfect.¬† A “picture-perfect countdown” a NASA spokesman was quoted as saying after the launch.¬† Indeed.

About 15 minutes before launch, things start getting exciting.  In an unexpected treat (unexpected to us, anyways), the International Space Station, which this shuttle mission was to service, passes directly overhead.  Since it was just before dawn, the sunlight coming over the horizon illuminates it with a brilliant glow and, like a shooting star, it is easily visible to the naked eye as it passes in front of the moon and off to the east.

With the crowd jazzed-up from that, the excitement really starts to build when all the launch controllers and astronauts do their T-minus nine minute check: “go for launch”¬†is the report from each.¬† Then the countdown resumes.¬† At five minutes to go, a perceptible¬†exhilaration permeates the crowd, and the murmur continues to build as the clock rolls down.¬† T-minus four minutes.¬† T-minus three minutes.¬† T-minus two minutes.¬† Will something happen at the last minute to derail it?¬† Nope, all systems go.¬† T-minus one minute.¬† I can feel the crowd’s energy inside myself– my heart was beating faster, my hands were getting a little sweaty.¬† Wow, it’s really starting to look like¬†we’re going to reach¬†the holy grail!¬† My brain switches-on its “ready for permanent memory” mode, last used when my son was born.¬† T-minus 30 seconds.¬† The streetlights at the park are extinguished and the crowd lets-out a cheer.¬† T-minus 20 seconds.¬† The announcer reports that the water jets under the launch pad have been activated, a fact that is clearly evident even at this distance.¬† The crowd cheers some more.¬† Ten, nine, eight, seven– main engines ignite!¬† Already impressive, and yet there is more to come!¬† Six, five, four, three– solid rocket boosters ignite, and with them, the whole eastern sky is brilliantly illuminated, well beyond my expectations.¬† Two, one– LIFTOFF!¬† Perhaps the radio broadcast was a slight bit tardy or the launch went a second early, but to me it looked like they had started liftoff even before the clock actually hit zero.¬† Regardless, the sight¬†is absolutely breathtaking.¬† This is one of those things that words cannot do justice, nor the video below.

Watching the shuttle ascend, the crowd lets out cheers and applause as the characteristic con-trail arcs skyward.  The glint of the approaching dawn bathes the gaseous vapors in a variety of pastels.  About 30 seconds after liftoff, the thunderous sound wave from the launch finally reaches us, loud enough to rattle my teeth, set-off car alarms, and elicit more cheers from the crowd.  Then, a couple minutes later, we hear the call for SRB separation, and although the shuttle is already hundreds of miles downrange, we can still see the two small points of light separate from the slightly-larger point of light between them.  Then, in the blink of an eye, that remaining point of light disappears into the distance.

The¬†happy¬†crowd starts packing-up and heading for the exits, and we follow suit, wishing the folks we had chatted with nearby best wishes on their journeys back to their respective homes.¬† (One family right next to us had ventured all the way from Ireland to see it, and we had heard several¬†foreign languages in the crowd during our stay.)¬† Bypassing the lines for the restrooms and the trinket stand and negotiating the myriad of people taking pictures, we traipse back to our car, still soaking-in what we had just seen, occasionally¬†glancing back at the vapor trails now being swirled in the new morning sky.¬† To many, it almost looks like the letters “BDG” had been formed.¬† What could that stand for?

Back in the car, a new reality quickly sets-inРthe usual beeline drive back to Orlando is about to resemble a hurricane evacuation, and indeed what normally takes about 40 minutes took nearly three hours. 

But boy, was it worth it.


Our video of the launch:

Also available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7J6euGRA2I


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