Saturday, May 22, 2010

Watching space shuttle Atlantis liftoff from Kennedy Space Center's press site

When it comes to fulfilling my bucket list items, I consider myself to be pretty fortunate.  I actually saw a space shuttle launch (STS-94) about ten years before the term "bucket list" had even been invented.  But I put it on the bucket list, anyway, because I saw it from a motel on Cocoa Beach, and I wanted to see it up close where I could actually see it clear the tower and feel the rumble vibrate my skull.

Well, last year, I went down for STS-125 only to discover that a lot of other people had the same idea.  So I saw STS-125 from Kennedy Space Center, but instead of being up close and personal, I was at the Kennedy Space Center visitor center, where you can't see the launch pad, but you can see it shortly after it clears the tree line.  Not close enough.  Finally got my wish on STS-127, which was the best shuttle launch I'm probably going to ever see.  Amazing.  STS-128, my first night launch, also amazing.  STS-130, a dark moment in my life when we stayed up until 4:30 on a very frigid Florida morning to watch the shuttle launch from the NASA causeway, and it scrubbed.  (Did you know that it gets cold in Florida?  Neither did I!!  And my lack of preparedness showed for it.)  Had the opportunity to do it the following day, but I was so dejected that I went home.  And the it launched the following night.  I watched it, grumpy, from a computer screen.  Didn't bother with STS-131.

So here I am, now, a space shuttle launch veteran.  I don't know how many of these it's gonna take for this addiction to wear off, but it hasn't yet.  And now, the real fun part is bringing others into my hobby.  I greeted my cousin's wife, Ali, at the gate in Orlando International Airport, and away we went!

Now, I've been to NASA's HQ in Florida many, many, many times.  But I've never reached the security gate on my own; it's always been while sitting inside of a Kennedy Space Center tour bus.  But Ali and I were actually special guests of NASA, as part of a tweetup!  Our names were given to the desk and when we arrived, we had security badges and vehicle permits and a welcome packet -- the works!  Driving around NASA that day was honestly almost as thrilling to me as the launch, particularly because I've been there so many times that I could navigate around the base without a map.

And with this special access, we toured the Vehicle Assembly Building, the International Space Station, met Stephanie Schierholz, our tweetup host, astronauts Janice Voss (who, believe it or not, was on my first space shuttle launch, STS-94!) and Dave Wolf (who, also believe it or not, was on STS-127, the best launch I've ever seen!) in addition to a member of the air force's weather squadron, a member of the cloesout crew, the robotics instructor at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and a host of other people!

(By the way, one more coincidence:  Michael T. Good was a mission specialist on this flight.  He was also on STS-125, the second shuttle I've seen launch.  This would be his final trip into space.)

The third-most thrilling thing we did was this, below.  This is where we actually witnessed the launch:  from the countdown clock that is in the footage of every space shuttle launch that has been.  I went up to it and touched it, and noted that it makes a whirring noise when you're close to it.  I wanted to make sure that I knew that anytime I saw that clock in the future, I'd know that my hands had been on it.

The STS-132 tweetup group
I'm in there, somewhere.
The second-most exciting thing to happen was to be standing within frisbee-throwing distance of the space shuttle, watching the "Rotating Service Structure" (or RSS) rotate away from the orbiter, thus exposing it to the open air and getting ready for launch.

But, of course, that leaves the most thrilling part:

It was unfortunate that it went into its own launch plume before the solid rockets separated.  For me, Ted Shevlin, disgruntled veteran, that was a disappointment.  But for Ali, her first time seeing a launch, she was crying.

Listen to the sound in that launch:  It's every bit that impressive and then some.  When that sound hits you, you feel it in your being, the way thunder hits you.  It's really something else to imagine that people traveled on that thing, and more importantly, safely returned to Earth.

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