I entered today tossing and turning, trying to force myself to sleep. Yesterday I was privileged to take a trip out to Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center along with the other 78 or so folks who had returned for a second launch attempt at the NASA Tweetup (for those of you who care, get on Twitter and search for #STS134 and/or #NASATweetup). We drove past the press, all clustered at the bottom of the pad ramp looking directly at the Shuttle's 'top' where it was hidden by the RSS, and drove around to the side of the pad before spilling out of the buses NASA had provided and immediately all pulling out cameras and various Twitter-enabled devices.
We were in a large roped-off area, by ourselves, just across the service road from the fence around Pad 39A. From where we were all clustered, it was perhaps a few hundred yards across open ground to the huge pile of steel. The iconic External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters were visible; the Orbiter itself was still completely hidden by the RSS. As we set up gear and started watching, we noticed small things. The "beanie cap" - the fueling attachment - was poised above the tip of the External tank, but had not yet rotated down to seal onto the valves. The tank itself was several shades darker than it had looked in the photos of Endeavour when she was rolled out - the foam insulation on the tank darkens over time when exposed to the elements.
Suddenly, there was a wingtip showing.
I couldn't help referring to the whole thing as a 'spaceship striptease' but there it was - eighty people cheering as recognizable shapes of the Orbiter emerged from behind the RSS. After a few minutes, the right wing was fully visible. We all stayed glued to cameras, and soon enough the whole glorious shape of the Shuttle was there - from our vantage point, we were looking directly at the right wing, with the tail (the 'top') of the shuttle pointing to our left.
There was a flurry of activity as we all took turns taking pictures of each other with the shuttle in the background. I noticed off to the right that there was a ball-shaped white structure some two hundred yards away. A couple of days before, a co-worker and I had been looking at Pad 39B on Google Earth and he has pointed out that very structure and wondered what it was - maybe fuel storage? Indeed. The words LH2 STORAGE were painted on the side, so I snapped a picture of it and emailed it to him with the message "You were right!" That was pretty cool.
Around the perimeter of the pad, both inside and outside the fence (behind us, near the scrub treeline) there were dozens of film and video cameras. Some were in elaborate white shield boxes; others bare. Some had mechanical drives on them, some were simply placed there. I felt like David Attenborough: "For it is here, in the scrub pines and cacti of Central Florida, that the elusive Camera Boxes gather to stalk their prey...the majestic Space Shuttle."
We clambered back on the buses half an hour or so after the RSS rollback had finished. We stopped at the north side of the shuttle long enough to take pictures from the same angle as the Press crew. In a pond next to the bus, two alligators came to the surface to eye us suspiciously. Several of us managed to get pictures of the alligators with the Shuttle in the background - a complete win I with my point-and-shoot was unable to replicate. But the pics were immediately passed around on the airwaves of 3G and WiFi.
After getting off the bus, another Spacetweep and I went off to the Associated Press trailer to be interviewed by John Belmont, a nice man with a killer radio voice. We spent a half hour talking about what the Space Shuttle meant to us before bidding him adieu and heading off to find drinks with the rest of the crew (he would later email us apologetically to say that his equipment had mangled our audio and he couldn't use it. Space is Hard(tm)). We ended up at Fishlips, a complete tourist jankhole on the Port Canaveral canal where I'd been a couple of weeks earlier on the way out of town from the scrubbed launch. Forty of us invaded, found tables and ordered drinks ranging from water (huh?) to various beers (better) to Rum Runners (myself and a co-tweep at the end of the table). The last time I'd been there, I'd sat on the deck at their wonderfully cheesy Tiki Bar overlooking the canal, but this time, the Tiki Bar was closed. In those two weeks, Florida was invaded by the biannual (I think) scourge of the Love Bugs - small to medium-sized black beetles whose purpose in life at the moment was to find a mate, attach themselves at the, um, ends, and spend the next few days flying around whilst so commingled. As a result, there were entire drifts of dead love bugs on the deck, and thousands upon thousands of them were crawling around on the windows. Bugs don't bother me much, but it creeped out several folks, and I sure wasn't going to sit out there.
While we were there, an enormous Carnival Cruise Lines cruise ship (the Sensation, I think) left Port Canaveral and maneuvered gracefully (no really, they have thrusters now, and those enormous whales can almost dance) through the canal out towards the open sea. I took a few pictures of the ship as it silently slid past the bug-infested window, thousands of passengers visible on its balconies and decks.
I still had no urge to take a cruise. Every time I see a ship like that, I think of David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, one of the best essays I've ever read. And one of the funniest pieces of writing I've come across. Yes, it's about taking a packaged 7-night Caribbean cruise (7NC). Read it, if you haven't.
At around 2:30, we started to straggle out. While some folks were heading off to search for entertainment and dinner, I (feeling my age) opted for the safer route of heading back to my hotel room, drawing the curtains, and trying to get as much sleep as possible starting around 4:30pm.
I managed to get in a 2-3 hour nap before waking back up, just slept *out*. Tossed and turned for several more hours, through midnight. At around midnight, the crew of STS-134 were woken up in the crew quarters at Kennedy Space Center; 12:30 was breakfast, and then they began their long and exciting day.
I managed to get a couple more hours of sleep before the alarm kicked in at 2:30am. We were told we had access to KSC via the employee gate (gate 2, on Florida State Road 3) starting at 3 AM - and this time, since there was no tent set up for the TweetUp (the 'Twent' had been a wonderful, air conditioned haven with power strips and wifi) we had all decided to get an early start to try to stake out spots at the Press Site.
Driving north on State Road 3, I meant to pull into CVS to get some protein bars, but they were still closed. Ah well. I did manage to score another artery-clogging dose of McDonald's breakfast and coffee, and then headed north into the night towards the lights.
Yes, lights - a lopsided cone, the searchlights around Pad 39A were blazing pale white up into the night sky. Even though the Pad and Shuttle themselves were hidden behind low hills and scrubby trees, I could follow that beacon - and the huge boxy shape of the Vehicle Assembly Building, also lit up - northwards. Reached a security checkpoint just before Gate 2; produced my TweetUp badge and my driver's license and the efficient security officer there waved me through.
When I got to actual Gate 2, a KSC uniformed guard looked at my credentials and grinned at me before waving me on with a "You have a good time, sir." Thumbs up.
Parked in the dark, out in the grass lot near the press site. Wandered over.
I'd been worried enough about seating to steal-*cough* borrow a towel from my hotel in case I needed something to sit on to protect me from the fire ants and small cacti that are plentiful around the KSC grass areas, but when I got to the area near where the Twent had been, there were two bleachers set up, and the NASA folks who had already been so helpful in shepherding us around told us that those were *ours* - the only caveat was that if NPR showed up, they had two spots reserved at the top of one of the bleacher sections. Uh, no problem! I headed for what looked like far too cool a setup - a bleacher with power strips and desks for laptops! - and found that yep, it was already half-full of TweetUp folks. Pulled out my iPad, keyboard and camera and claimed a spot.
At 5:00 am, we all drifted back over to the access road with our cameras, leaving laptops and gear haphazardly stacked at our seats. The last time we'd been here, the Astrovan had come past carrying the crew to the pad - and right in front of us, stopped and made a U-Turn (which we had dubbed the 'scrub turn') which indicated that the launch had been scrubbed. This time, several folks in the TweetUp crowd carried helpful signs with 'ONE WAY ->' pointing to the pad, and 'NO U-TURNS!' written on them to wave.
After only a few minutes, the tell-tale helicopter escort appeared over one of the the low buildings. The moon, gibbous, was just setting behind that same building - and there it was, the Astrovan. In convoy with several vehicles, it came out at a good clip and...stopped right in front of us. NOOOO! But it was OK; this time, it was just to let the Launch Director and some other NASA folks get off and walk over to the Launch Control Center. We waved furiously, and several arms clad in the orange of the Ascent Suits waved back, just as hard! We gave a good cheer, I think, and then they were off, to be strapped into their spacecraft.
Wandering back towards the bleachers, we all straggled back long enough to make sure that the helicopter in fact went all the way to the pad, escorting the van...and it did. No scrub! The NASA information sources told us that no issues were being worked which would impact the launch, and that the weather officer was still predicting 70% chance of 'go.' At the urging of our escorts, we all walked over to the official NASA Briefing Room auditorium (where they give the press conferences from) and found seats. Several folks representing the STORRM project were there to explain to us what that was. Representatives from NASA Langley, Lockheed Martin and Ball Aerospace showed us mockups and models of the STORRM - a test of new sensors designed to make docking spacecraft with the International Space Station easier. At present, we learned, the Space Shuttle uses *three* different systems while approaching the ISS - two radar systems (long range, medium range) and then for the final phase, a laser scanner (LIDAR) which bounces off reflectors installed around the 'docking target' on the station.
STORRM is a single laser-based system which will replace all three of those. It starts working at 5 km from the station, where the first docking radar is used now, and works all the way in to approximately 1-2 meters from contact, when the docking camera takes over. This means that one system can be used rather than three on the Orion spacecraft or other future spacecraft, saving weight and power. There are also various plans to use the LIDAR sensor of the system to map objects - think of it as a big 3-D scanner with a range of a few kilometers(!). One big improvement over the current laser system was evident - the STORRM uses 'eye-safe' lasers, whereas the current system uses beams which can damage the eye. Some other trivia - the STORRM experiment that was waiting to fly on STS-134 (*OUR* Shuttle) was a test which would just record tons of data as the Shuttle docked with (and, later, performed a flyby of) the ISS. It is, we think, the first data collection system flown in space which has over a terabyte of storage capacity. It is built with COTS parts, and was put together in only 14 months - an amazingly fast time for a NASA project! It was accelerated because this flight, STS-134, is the only chance that STORRM will have to work with the Shuttle and the ISS since all space on STS-135, the final flight, is taken. Fortunately, the necessary laser reflectors were installed on the ISS during STS-132, so all is in readiness.
We got to ask them a bunch of questions. My best contribution - when the NASA Langley project lead admitted that the calculations for docking would be performed by a standard NASA/ISS laptop running Labview on Windows, I said "Wait, you're serious? You're actually running Windows for Space Stations?" I got a laugh, and the other project lead from NASA made the infamous 'three-finger salute' on an imaginary keyboard.
When we left the auditorium, light was coming over the horizon. We trekked back to our bleachers, toweled off the condensation from our various gear, and continued to Tweet as hard as possible. I spent ten minutes screwing around with my camera bag to improvise a 'holder' for the Flip video camera I'd brought. Everyone, NASA and otherwise, had told us: whatever you do, don't take pictures during the launch. Watch it. There are hundreds of cameras documenting this. Use your eyes. So I set up the little Flipcam and resolved to start it a few minutes before launch and leave it.
The countdown continued. We'd watched, on the monitors in the briefing room during the demo, as the crew suited up in the White Room (with black curtains...just kidding) and moved into Endeavour. The Closeout Crew assisted them, helping them into their seats, shaking their hands. The hatch, with its cover and ENDEAVOUR symbol, closed behind them.
At this point, the excitement was really starting to bubble up. People were jittering in their seats. We were all glued to the information feed from Launch Control. Into the second-to-last preplanned hold at T-20:00, there was An Issue - apparently the Closeout crew, on closing the hatch, noticed that the protector sheets placed around the shuttle's nose had, during their removal, damaged a tile around the main hatch. BREAKING, the tweet read, TILE DAMAGE. EVALUATION UNDERWAY.
We groaned, but quietly, and all held our breath for ten or fifteen minutes before the long-awaited tweet came through: "TILE DAMAGE WILL NOT IMPACT LAUNCH SCHEDULE. COUNTDOWN CONTINUES. PREPARING TO COME OUT OF HOLD." There was a cheer then, let me tell you.
Eventually, as the clock started to count down from T-9 minutes, I hit 'go' on the Flip camera and then grabbed my point-and-shoot and wandered, with most of the rest of the tweeps, to stand close to the waterline. I ended up standing with three other guys some feet back from the line of tripods and photographers crowded at the water - just about equal with the Countdown Clock, perhaps ten yards to the right of it as you faced the pad. All four of us held devices and followed along as the count passed 5 minutes. Then 3. Then 1. I started my point-and-shoot going in 'video' mode and just aimed it generally in the direction of the pad. Then, suddenly, the whole crowd was shouting:
"10! 9! 8! 7!" ...I added my favorite words in the proper order, "GO FOR MAIN ENGINE START!" and then "THREE! TWO! ONE!" and we all dissolved into an inchoate mass of cheering and screaming as the billowing steam cloud arose on the horizon, spurting out northwards from the flame trench under Pad 39A. The shouting grew - I realized I was jumping up and down, didn't care, everyone around me was hopping around - "LIFTOFF! LIFTOFF! LIFTOFF!" and the second cloud flooded south as the boosters fired, and then...then...then...
There are some things about a Space Shuttle launch which are impossible to understand if you've only seen one on television. In the order they became apparent:
IT'S BRIGHT. TV cameras have filters and automatic aperture. Rocket exhaust, on TV, is just a 'light area.' Not in real life. A second sun appeared amidst the steam and smoke and then lifted off the ground, jumping for the heavens.
IT'S LOUD. About twelve seconds later, just as Endeavour was starting its roll maneuver, the NOISE hit. It didn't rumble. It didn't crackle. It went straight into the inner ear and into the chest cavity and crashed into distortion, the entire world flapping in and out of audibility with the trillions of joules being fired out into the atmosphere.
IT'S FAST. We had a low cloud deck for launch - perhaps 5 or 8 thousand feet. The Shuttle cleared the tower, then immediately started to roll to head east, downrange. From our position, nearly directly west of it, it seemed to hesitate and reorient itself, and then- BAM it was going, going, gone. Into the cloud deck, orange bloom of holy fire entering the gray surface and flooding it with light from within, and the noise battering us from all sides, and...and...even then, the noise fading, muffled by the clouds, the light vanishing, and poof.
All that was left was an enormous smoke cloud, slowly rising up from Pad 39A.
I realized I was still screaming and jumping, and everyone around me was screaming and jumping, and I was having trouble seeing the smoke cloud through the tears.
When we calmed down, we huddled around a couple of Macbooks with Verizon modems and watched the familiar litany, punctuated by more outbreaks of cheers from the diverse crowd around us as milestones were reached. "Max Q."
"Endeavour is go at throttle-up."
"SRB separation is complete." The pictures on the screen showed the immense boosters arcing away, flames guttering from their back ends, falling back towards the ocean and the waiting recovery ships which had put out from Cape Canaveral earlier.
And then, the noise level dropped as people waited for it, you could feel the hush, and...
"MECO! Main engine cutoff, and Endeavour is in orbit."
And that got the last concerted cheer.
In those few minutes, the people that had waved to me from perhaps fifteen yards a few scant hours earlier were now across the Atlantic ocean, two hundred miles up, moving at 17,500 miles per hour, and they were in space.
We milled around, wanting to avoid the traffic crush as people hurried to leave (leave KSC? Why? In the name of all that's holy, why would you leave here, where such things can happen...) so we wrote and tweeted and compared notes and all watched replays. You could tell when groups were watching replays because sudden cheers would break out from huddled clusters of people at random intervals. The press, doing their job, started prattling on to their cameras for later coverage. Fox News, right next to our bleacher, actually begged us to hold down the noise so they could finish their reporting (which a bunch of us immediately tweeted as "FOX NEWS TOLD ME TO SHUT UP! WINNING!") I got a message from some friends of mine back in New York City - they excitedly told me that they had been watching the launch on NASA TV, and the camera angle for the launch had been aimed at the shuttle from in front of the clock - and that I was visible, clearly, on the right side of the frame jumping up and down.
Immediately after MECO, I moved back to my backpack and fulfilled my own personal mission - I lit a cigar (an Arturo Fuente Gran Reserve) in front of the Countdown Clock, and standing in front of it with a few other smokers (including some other cigar smokers) I reflected that for the first time in a few years, I could say unequivocally that Today Was A Good Day.
It turned out that my handheld camera was pointed mostly in the wrong direction (don't care) and that my Flip camera back at the bleachers, while it had been aimed right, worked great until 10 seconds before launch - when the people in the row ahead of me stood up to watch. So I have a minute of a nice lady's back, and when she sits down again, the smoke cloud is hanging there quietly on the screen (don't care).
Finally, a couple of hours later, we began to disperse, trading email addresses and pictures and more. I'd given one gent a video interview of What The Shuttle Launch Meant To Me, and reduced myself to tears again - but that was OK, everybody else kept crying too.
And when I left the Kennedy Space Center some two-plus hours later, those six nice folks who had waved to me had gone around the world.
I know the Space Shuttle program has to end. It's time to retire them. But oh, people - we need things like this. We need big projects which thousands of people pour their lives into to cheer for. As an astronaut said, "What other federal agency has 700,000 people lined up outside its gates on a Friday afternoon just to see what they're up to?" We need the big noise, and the big light, and the wonder and the thrill of it all - we need that. Capsules will give us some of it. But they're not SPACESHIPS. They're not. You can't love a capsule. I hope we build more spaceships in my lifetime, but even if we don't, I can tell my nephews that I saw one of the last of them launch, in person, and when Endeavour comes home and goes to her final sleeping place in Los Angeles to doze away the years in honor, wrapped in bunting, I will go there and try to lay a hand on her cool sleeping surface and I will whisper to her "I was there, and I saw you, and I heard your Dragon roar when you left Earth that last time, and I love you."