Thursday, April 08, 2010

My First Shuttle Flight

I distinctly remember the first test flight of Columbia launching on April 12, 1981, and how much I anticipated NASA's returned to manned space missions. It had been nearly six years since NASA put men into space for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. I was a senior in high school, just about to graduate. The Columbia mission proved that a reusable orbiter was not only feasible, but worked well and safely brought John Young and Robert Crippen back to earth. The short two-day mission was a huge success and was the kickoff of close to thirty years of putting astronauts from several countries and the first American women in space. I get the same chills today as I did back in 1981 when a shuttle blasts off. They are the same chills I got watching the Saturn V rockets launch back in the 1960's and 1970's. I set a personal goal of seeing a shuttle launch in person.

I have seen the Shuttle on the launch pad numerous times in my visits to Florida, and I have seen and heard it return to the cape a couple of times. I saw it once piggybacked to the 747 transporter, and once we heard it land when it was dark just a couple of years ago. If it had landed on the first pass it would have been light enough to see it land. Still the sonic booms sent chills up my spine.

Flash forward to 1993 and the FoxPro DevCon in Orlando. The day after the conference ended a bunch of Fox developers and space geeks headed out to Kennedy Space Center for a shuttle launch. I cannot remember which conference attendee worked on the space center grounds, but we organized through CompuServe and he got our group an unbelievable good location for the launch. The weather was not cooperating as there were low-level clouds that made it difficult for the astronauts to land at Kennedy if there was something wrong with the engines during launch. We could hear the mission control announcer talk about the countdown, what was happening with the shuttle, and what the problems were they were trying to solve. The biggest was the weather at both Kennedy and the weather in Spain (used as a landing site when the launch aborts across the Atlantic). I distinctly remember praying for the weather to break. If my memory serves me right I also recall FoxPro Guru Tom Rettig climbing a sign on the grounds with "Foxtrot" on it. Tom had a framework called TRO so he climbed up the sign and covered up the last "t" so it read Foxtro. Miraculously the weather broke just as the launch window was closing for the day. The countdown continued and everything seemed to be going smooth. Under a minute I started to get really excited as I was about to see the shuttle launch for the first time. The Mission Control announcer was going through the standard milestones and I was checking things off in my head on what was about to happen. At T-31 seconds the shuttle computers take over the countdown and run the show. This is when some valve sensor triggered the computers to abort the mission. So close, yet so far. It was extremely frustrating at the time, but I thought to myself, better safe than sorry. It turned out the sensor was bad and there was really nothing wrong. We drove directly back to the airport for the flight home. I remember thinking, there will be plenty more launches to see.

I have watched most of the 130 shuttle launches on broadcast TV or on NASA TV on the Internet. When the Challenger exploded in January 1986 I was fearful that my dream of one day seeing one in person might be gone, but fortunately the NASA engineers figured out what went wrong and flights resumed a couple years later. The same when Columbia exploded over Texas in February 2003. Those were very sad days for me.

It turns out that seeing a shuttle launch is harder to see than one would think. There are probably a billion things that could go wrong to cancel a launch. Weather is unpredictable and has to be perfect in several locations here in the USA and in Europe. The shuttle system is the most complex machine ever built by humans. Sensors, wiring, computers, tiles, hatches, pressurization, fuel, valves, o-rings, engines, and on and on and on. Hardware galore. Despite the meticulous checklists and verification of work, things fail and processes don't work. On top of that the missions to the International Space Station (ISS) have a 10 minute window when the shuttle is launched to minimize fuel usage as the orbiter chases ISS in orbit. Back in the day when a shuttle was launching satellites or doing experiments they could sit on hold for hours. Today's missions to the space station have 10 minute windows and can only be launched on certain days when the space station is in the correct orbit. NASA also has to coordinate with other space agencies that are launching rockets to ISS.

When the Bush administration decided to retire the shuttle program a few years ago I knew my opportunities were limited. I knew exactly how many shots I had to see one in person. I started planning my calendar around flights to see if I could fit one in. Trying to plan when to fly down and hope one of the billion things don't go wrong is not easy to solve. In 2009 I arrived in Florida two weeks after a launch and a few weeks before the next one. This year the schedule proved to be the same during our annual Easter family trip. But the unusually cold winter in Florida delayed the flight of Discovery (STS-131) by an additional two weeks and put it smack dab in the middle of our vacation. I crossed my fingers as there was still so much time left between the scheduled change and the launch, and so many variables still in the mix.

Flash forward to April 4, 2010...

The countdown of Discovery continued to go smooth and I kept reading the mission briefings. Everything was going as planned and on schedule. The night before the scheduled launch there was some discussion of fog. Seriously? Can't we just get some fans and make sure it blows inland? My window for this launch was a couple of days and I was hoping it would go perfect since our son was leaving the next day and I wanted him to see it as well.

The night before the launch I was working, and took a few breaks to see what friends were posting on Twitter. Apparently several were also planning on going to see the shuttle the next day. Markus Egger got wind of this. He and I went back and forth as I provided him some information on viewing sites and timings to get to the coast from Orlando. Twitter made it all the more exciting. The scheduled launch is 6:21am so we had to leave my parent's place at 3:30am to ensure we could get a parking spot and good seats. I found what appeared to be a perfect location at Space View Park in Titusville. It is 12 miles from the launch pad, but that is the closest you can get without advanced tickets to sit on the NASA Causeway (6 miles from launch pad) or the super special VIP tickets near Mission Control. I went to bed at 10:00pm hoping to get a few hours of sleep before leaving. There is no doubt that I had a difficult time falling asleep. I felt like a little kid the night before a big trip. For me, this had the potential of being one of those really special days in a lifetime.

April 5, 2010...

I woke up at 2:42am without an alarm. I turned on my computer and checked out NASA TV to see where things were in the countdown. If all was well I should be hearing about the astronauts heading out to the launch pad and sure enough they were boarding the astrovan and heading out. No issues were being tracked and the weather was cooperating. Things were going well and my fear of the external tank valve freezing did not materialize. This has been the biggest problem in the last few launches. I woke up Therese, told her we were a “go” and jumped in the shower. I was focused on leaving on time, something my family is not well known for, even threatening to leave people behind if they did not get in the car on time. Don't mess with a space geek ready to see a lifelong dream come true.

As we drove along the 528 (I have always known it as the Beeline, now called the Beachline) we hit some dense fog in areas. I was hoping this would not affect the launch. There was a lot of traffic too. Not bumper to bumper, but it was obvious a lot of people were going to see the launch. We hit Titusville around 4:30, right on schedule. When we arrived at Highway 1 (the road along the inter-coastal waterway) we hit a sea of people. Tons of cars, vans, and RVs parked along the road. People were walking along and across the streets. There were lots of people with binoculars and chairs and coolers. Wow. It reminded me of pictures and video of the people watching the Apollo era moon launches. I was expecting a few space geeks like myself, but we are talking about hundreds of thousands hanging along the coast. I felt a twinge of regret thinking we were too late to find a good viewing spot. Maybe I should have followed my hunch and tried to get a hotel room the night before.

We kept driving north on Highway 1 with our final destination being Space View Park. The traffic around the park was nuts and there was no parking. We still had time so I dropped off my parents, our two kids, and my nephew and headed out with Therese to find parking. We drove south about a half mile. I saw a sign for public parking on the right. To my left I saw a young guy with a sign "$20 Parking". I like young entrepreneurs and thought it would be cool to help him out. I was thinking he was loading up his parents’ front lawn saving up for college. I got out of the car and he took my $20 after explaining the bathroom was in the pool house and the viewing is best from the dock. Dock? Cool. It was already close to 5:00am, a little more than one hour before launch. I called our son and told them we found a spot to park and a place to view the launch, and to stay at the park. I could not go get everyone and make it back in time, and they could not walk because my mom's knee is injured.

What we found was the perfect location to watch the shuttle launch. Out on this huge dock was room for probably 40-50 people. The dock had 3 slips for boats and a huge area where people could gather. We could have stayed on shore and watched from the beautiful patio, but I wanted to be 200 feet closer. I told Therese I was feeling a bit guilty as we left the rest of our family in this sea of people at the park and we had the perfect unobstructed view. We found room on the dock and Therese decided she needed an extra jacket because the cool breeze off the water was too cold for her. I wore a fleece pullover so I was fine. She went back to the car and I talked with a couple of the photographers who were setting up to take pictures and video. I asked them about the settings they were going to use as I knew we effectively were going to see a night launch and the light from the flames shooting out of the three main engines and the solid rocket boosters would fill the night sky and make it look closer to daylight. I suspected that most pictures would be a blob of light in the dark sky. I had no intention of taking a single picture. I brought the camera, but it is only a 3 megapixel model. Takes terrific pictures, but is not going to do well 12 miles away. I did bring the Flip HD video camera, but I knew that would not get great video. I wanted to just take in the launch first hand and record the best memories possible. The video camera might get pointed toward Discovery or it might be looking at the ground. I did not care.

Therese made it back fine after stopping in the pool house to check it out. What she described meant the kid who was collecting money did not need it for college as she figured this family was doing okay. Personally, it was great that they shared their view with the rest of us. I would gladly paid $100 for the view considering I could not get Causeway tickets or VIP seats through our congresswomen.

Off in the distance you could see the Vehicle Assembly Building (the very tall building where NASA assembles rockets and shuttle stacks) to the right, and just to the left was Discovery basking in the light of numerous spotlights. We could not see detail from 12 miles away, but you knew right where to look. Several boats were going up and down the inter-coastal waterway. I suspect they were Coast Guard or NASA boats keeping people out of places where they did not belong. We also could see off in the distance the NASA plane that does fly-bys to test landing conditions on the shuttle's runway.

All along I was reading the @NASA and @ExploreSpaceKSC tweets about how things were progressing. I also surfed the web looking for launch status stories, mostly on Smooth sailing. I was sharing the updates with those around me. Several other space geeks were also sharing information they found on the Web. Smartphones rule! You could tell the intensity of most people around me and their love of the space program and space exploration. I felt among my kind {g}. Even Therese mentioned that there are a lot of people on this dock just like me.

At 6:00am a tweet was posted about the International Space Station doing a fly over from the south-southeast at 6:04am. My mom called me soon after to let me know too. They had a live feed from Mission Control broadcast over speakers in the park so they were getting live updates. I let others on the dock know so we could start looking for it. Therese actually spotted it first. More chills. Yes, I have seen ISS fly overhead before on numerous occasions (once paired with a shuttle), but this time Discovery was going to launch and begin the process of chasing it with the 17,000 pounds of supplies in the Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module securely stored in the cargo bay. My son Chris had my tripod and used his superior camera to take some extended exposure pictures of it streaking across the sky. What a nice bonus.

Internally I was doing my own countdown. 10 minutes, 5 minutes, 3 minutes. I was imagining what Mission Control was doing, what the shuttle was doing, how the launch pad was alive with the sounds of a machine about to thrust itself skyward. I recalled that hot Florida day back in 1993 and how disappointed I was when the launch aborted. Was this the time I would see it go? Two minute to go. The sky was just starting to brighten from the soon-to-come sunrise.

One minute to go and no time to check Twitter. I turned on the video camera and pointed it east. 30 seconds to go. You could see some people get anxious as 6:21am showed on their cell phone clocks. Obviously they did not know it was scheduled to go at 6:21:25. All of a sudden the horizon got brighter. You could see the main engines light up, and then the solid rocket boosters ignited. Liftoff of space shuttle Discovery!!! Godspeed!!!

To say chills went up and down my back, well that was a given. The sky lit up and was bright as day. It was silent except for the oohs and aaahs from the people around me. You could hear the cameras clicking, especially the guy next to me who had two digital SLRs firing in rapid succession. Discovery was off the launch pad and in the roll maneuver. The thick stream of solid rocket propellant burning along with the three main engines created a long flame trail. That is all we really could see as she lifted higher and higher. The brightness of the flames made it so we could not see the orbiter, external tank or the solid rocket boosters. I miscalculated the timing on the sound reaching us. The speed of sound depends on the temperature, but travels approximately 1 mile in 5 seconds. When I was doing the math I was thinking it was going to hit us in 5 seconds, but actually it took closer to 50 seconds to reach us. I was really surprised not only by the volume, but by the vibrations that hit us. We could hear the rolling thunder of the rockets *and* feel it hit us in the face. You could hear what sounded like a sonic boom. What special effects put on by NASA! I later heard on TV that the water sound suppression system did not work correctly and read on Twitter that Discovery's launch was louder than usual due to atmospheric conditions (moist air and a breeze blowing from the east amplified the sound). I have not been able to confirm the water sound suppression system failure.

We watched for about 7 minutes as Discovery went off towards the horizon, across the Atlantic Ocean, going faster and faster, higher and higher. We could see the solid rocket boosters separate which is always something you want to see every time since Challenger's last launch back in 1986. All we could really see was two little red dots in the sky float away from the fireball. On Twitter I read a post that Discovery made it successfully to orbit. This experience was just what I had hoped for. On April 5th NASA made a billion things go right so I could witness the magnificent launch of a space shuttle. Thanks to everyone from NASA and all their partners for making it a terrific launch to watch.

My dream had been realized and it was better than I had imagined, and believe me, I have imagined it a lot and often. Nearly thirty years of wishing I could see a space shuttle blast off from Kennedy Space Center and in less than 10 minutes it was over. Now I want to see another. This was considered a night launch so maybe I can see a day launch too. Not sure of that is going to happen, but I might as well dream big, because as I have proven over and over, dreams really do come true.

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