In February 2011, I was lucky enough to get my golden ticket to the Space Coast. Astronomy Now’s sister company Spaceflight Now, both run by Steven Young, is based within the press site at Kennedy Space Center. The office, affectionately known as The Fishbowl on account of its almost 360-degree view around the site, looks out on the Vehicle Assembly Building, the famous NASA countdown clock and, of course, the launch pad, 3.1 miles away. It certainly beats my UK office view of a petrol station and a car park. I’d been working at AN for around 3 years, and it was no secret that I would give my right arm (and various other body parts come to think of it) to experience a shuttle launch, so I didn’t need asking twice if I’d like to upgrade my AstroFest speaker fee into a flight over to KSC. I still couldn’t believe it was happening even when I boarded the plane to Orlando a couple of weeks later that I might get the chance to see my dream realized in the form of Discovery’s final mission, STS-133.
I was under the impression that I was “just” going for a shuttle launch, but I was to be surprised on a daily basis with what was in store for me. On my first day I went to the pre-launch press briefing. It was so surreal being in that press room having seen numerous press conferences online. I even asked a question regarding the science experiments that were being flown on the mission, surprising many people tuned in back home! That evening I got to see Discovery closer than I thought I ever would – a few tens of metres away to watch the Rotating Service Structure (RSS) slowly swing away to reveal the orbiter on the launch pad in all her glory.
The next day was launch day. I tried not to get too excited in case it didn’t happen (two launch attempts several months previously had been thwarted, first by relatively minor technical problems and then by a hydrogen leak, which lead to the discovery of cracks in structural components of the shuttle's external tank that required a lot of attention)...but I failed miserably :) The atmosphere was really buzzing. I even met a prototype Robonaut-2! It was really surreal meeting the Spaceflight Now webcast team, too, and I passed a lot of time talking excitedly to new friends.
My main “job” of the morning was to go to the astronaut walkout, and watch the crew members board the “astro-van” and head to the launch pad. I waited patiently along with hundreds of other members of the press, and then a cheer went up and cameras started clicking frantically as the six crew-members walked out of the Operations and Checkout Building. I was shaking with excitement and am amazed any of my photos came out!
When we got to within an hour of launch I was literally jumping up and down with excitement, much to everyone else's amusement. It was an incredibly nail-biting final few minutes as there was a last-minute “no-go” on the range, a problem which was resolved with just seconds to spare. A massive cheer went up around the press-site – for those people who were plugged into the NASA feed at least, everyone else probably wondered what had happened but at least it was cheering they were hearing. The clock moved out of its final scheduled hold and it was all systems go.
It’s at this point that words begin to fail me. Seeing a shuttle launch really is an incredibly magical experience, and it’s really rather difficult to relay the emotions that you experience watching one for the first time, to someone who hasn’t. I feel like I’ve joined a club of people who “get it”. Two things that did totally overwhelm me that you just don’t get with watching it on TV are the sound and the brightness. You see the shuttle launching before you hear it and if you blink you have little shuttle shapes burned on your retinas. When the sound arrives, boy does it arrive. The roar totally encompasses you and it makes you feel like you should be running for cover. You feel it in your chest and as a breeze in your hair.
I took video of the launch with my little digital camera held against my chest while I watched the launch with my eyes (a tip that everyone will tell you – leave the photography up to the professionals and just appreciate the launch with all of your senses without seeing it through a lens, which will really disconnect you). You might get a feeling for how bright it was given what it did to my pixels, but it really doesn’t do the sound justice. I’m quite shy about the video as it also captures my wide-eyed child-like reactions to the experience – you’d never know I was actually a space reporter given some of the ridiculous things I come out with – I even forgot to look out for the SRB separation! I stared at the sky for several minutes, following the tiny pin-prick of light until I could see it no more, but still remained staring at the billowing grey trail that it had painted in the sky.
It was about six months after the launch that it suddenly clicked what it was about a launch that was most surreal, that I hadn’t been able to put my finger on previously. While the experience itself was amazing, it was the minutes afterwards that were the most bizarre. In a kind of dream-like state, looking around at each other, almost in disbelief at what we had just seen and at that moment, before watching all the replays, only the trail on the sky and the countdown clock counting upwards as reminders that it had really happened. Human beings were on their way into space and here the rest of us were resuming normal business – getting in cars and going home or switching over to another TV channel, and billions of people in the world totally oblivious even to what had happened. Life would never be the same again.
Equally surreal dinner celebrations followed with the Spaceflight Now team that I was so used to watching online from my desk 4,000 miles away, but that was far from the end of the road as far as my trip went. Another pinch-me moment came during the joint shuttle-ISS crew inflight press conference – I got to talk to all twelve astronauts! It was possibly the most nervous I had ever been, and the time delay made me feel even more self-conscious. Here’s a little video of how that conversation worked out.
While STS-133’s story continued to pan out 200 miles above my head, back on terra firma another treat was in store – Endeavour was set to back out of its hanger, the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) and roll over to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). We were on site before sunrise to be ready in time. Members of the STS-134 crew were also there to watch their vehicle be towed out of its hanger, and even came over to say hi to us press folk. I never thought I’d be that close to a shuttle as it moved the couple of hundred metres from OPF to VAB, literally within spitting distance in front of me.
The mission was extended by 2 days but I was lucky enough to still be in Florida to see Discovery return safely to Earth. Landing day was filled with nervous excitement. Having being following the mission closely throughout – NASA TV on at every available opportunity, in the the front room, in the car, you name it – I felt really connected to it, and the crew almost felt like friends. I joined dozens of others at the midpoint of the runway, eagerly awaiting the orbiter’s return. The building had three levels, and we headed for level 1. I wasn’t there for long, however, as Steven surprised me with a pass to the roof! A few select media crew were up there, and the view was much better with those extra few metres, looking over the trees that blocked some of the view of the runway.
Landing has its risks, like launch, so there was an air of nervousness, as well as excitement. It looked so fragile hanging there in the sky, despite the double sonic boom announcing its arrival back into the atmosphere. Carving out a wide S-shape in the sky it didn’t take long before it was gliding down the runway in front of me to reach wheel stop. Discovery’s journey was over. A few hours later we watched as she was towed back along the runaway to the OPF, and there was a bittersweet air – we were pleased to see Discovery back safe and sound after a successful mission, but sad because she was being towed to her fate – to be dismantled and turned into a museum piece. It was even more surreal being in the post-flight news conference afterwards with the crew, having spoken to them while they were in space. I’m kicking myself for sitting there grinning and staring at them rather than thinking of an original question to ask though!
And on top of all that, as part of the same trip I was also in the right place at the right time to see an Atlas V launch, and spend a weekend at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, including the Astronaut Training Experience (ATX). But that’s another story.
I returned to Florida briefly over Easter with hopes to see Endeavour launch, but sadly I had to return to the UK before that went ahead. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, however, because it meant there was support available to go inside the OPF to see Atlantis being prepared for her final flight, and also inside the VAB to see the solid rocket boosters and external fuel tank waiting to be mated to the orbiter one last time. Here’s a video of that, too:
Thanks for reading!
Still to come....The Last Shuttle Launch, the ATX, and what the shuttle program meant to me.