I was born and grew up in Central Florida, on the eastern coast, 10 miles from Cape Canaveral, and about 15 miles from Kennedy Space Center (KSC). For obvious reasons, this part of Florida is also known as the ‘Space Coast’. Here, I saw pretty much every significant Space Shuttle launch in person, beginning with the first one STS-1, until the mid-2000’s when I moved out of Florida. Watching the recent footage of Discovery making its final trip for exhibition at the National Air & Space Museum, has finally made me want to pause and reflect a bit. The shuttle program is nearly as old as I am, and I have some fond memories (and less fond memories) of that time. Here’s a quick retrospective of my shuttle watching career for the main ones I remember, by mission ID. (And for fellow space buffs, don’t worry about not knowing the mission ID’s, I had to look them up too. They got complicated.)
STS-1: First Flight
My father worked in Cape Canaveral (but not at NASA), and he knew a great spot from which to watch the launch. The night before the historic event, he loaded my one-year-old brother and I into our little camper trailer. We camped just outside the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station gates. I remember it was quite the festive occasion. Literally thousands of other people were out there with us, doing the same thing.
There were barbecues the night before, and shared coffee the morning of. We had a great view about 6 miles from the launch pad. It was as close as you could get at the time without a pass. It was the perfect spot to view (and feel) Columbia. I remember waking very early that morning and going down to the water front. You could just make out the shape of the shuttle without binoculars from my vantage point. Columbia was a beautiful glistening white monument to the time (this was when the external fuel tank was still painted). When it launched, it was bright, it was loud, it was gorgeous. I remember at that moment, even at my very young age, being filled with a great sense of pride and amazement. I count this event as one of the top few moments in my life I’ll never forget.
I was in fourth grade the morning of January 28th, 1986. I remember prior to leaving for school that day, I caught a quick glimpse of the local television news that was on in the background. The station was doing their typical shuttle pre-flight broadcast routine with onsite reporters and weather from the launch pad, etc. Challenger was to launch later that morning, and one image flashed on the screen that has stuck with me. It was a picture of a few NASA employees running around the bottom (tail) of the shuttle, knocking off large icicles from the rear end. In Central Florida the temperature only goes below freezing a few days per year, and this was one of those days. At the time, I thought it was neat because I didn’t get to see ice very much… you know, outdoors (not in our freezer). Of course, these conditions would later be implicated as a contributing factor in the explosion that was about to occur. In retrospect, I think any 4th grader who lived there with knowledge of the situation probably would have stopped the launch.
Of course, launch managers did have knowledge, but alas they did not stop it.
That morning was also the first launch morning that my school forgot to perform a ‘fire drill’. Rather than ringing the fire alarm bell before the liftoff (as was customary among grade schools there), one of my classmates pointed to the windows and said “the shuttle!” It had just launched. We all ran out the back door of the classroom to the yard behind the school where we joined a few other classes. I made it outside just in time to see a single sleek smoke plume that I knew well. It then turned into a huge ball of white and orange tint. Two lines of smoke (the boosters) took off in separate directions from the ball. I’m not sure what I felt that exact instant, but our teachers scratched their heads as the sight sank in. They were in initial denial I think. “Odd booster separation” I remember hearing one of them say. But we, the kids, knew something was wrong immediately. Under normal circumstances, many of my friends and I could probably have substituted for mission control, calling the launch script from memory. That day we knew it wasn’t just an unusual booster separation.
Following the Challenger disaster in Central Florida was unbelievable. I think perhaps it has only been matched by the reaction the country had to September 11th, 2001. Almost everyone I knew had a friend, parent, or relative that worked at Kennedy Space Center. And those that didn’t cared just as much. People would tear up as they talked about it. From long time KSC workers to hardened policemen, it affected everyone. After a few weeks of nearly round-the-clock coverage in local media, that picture I’ve added above, and video which captured the explosion, were not shown in any media for at least a few months afterwards. There was some kind of unwritten agreement that the images were too disturbing, and everyone had already seen them enough anyway. While at first this may sound like a blackout, or censorship, it really wasn’t. It seems like some news outlets did the same with the September 11th attacks. It allowed people to watch the news without breaking down. Even years later it seemed local news outlets were hesitant to show the footage. Every time there was a new development in the investigation, the national news would of course show the explosion. Local news showed only the launch and stopped there.
For months after the explosion people were finding wreckage on the beach. I remember one picture in the local paper that showed the top of one of the astronauts helmets. I was a kid still, and I’m pretty sure I had nightmares for a while after that.
I was in Middle School, sixth grade, a couple of years after Challenger. Discovery was the first orbiter to go back up, and everyone was cautiously optimistic. There were big celebrations for the historic ‘Return to Flight’ (RTF… everything NASA is an acronym. Pun intended.) I was in a different school then, but this time they absolutely remembered to do the fire drill. We all had pinned-on shirt tags celebrating the moment, and it was a joyous time again in Space Coast history with the flights success. I was so excited, I actually forgot to take my RTF tag off for our annual school picture that also happened to be scheduled for that day. I wish I could find that yearbook. Or maybe not!
STS-76: My first site-pass at a night launch
I had been onsite at KSC with a visitor pass for launches before STS-76. The visitor location was a site on KSC property that the general public could go to for viewing. But only if you had a pass. It’s not as close as the press site (reserved for media and dignitaries), but it was a close as the average Joe could get. I think it’s about 3 or 4 miles from the launch pad. I had also seen plenty of night launches, but this STS-76 flight was the first time I had gotten to see a night launch from within the visitors area. I was in college in Orlando, at UCF (about 45 miles away) at the time. Back then, in 1996, before September 11th, 2001, NASA was pretty liberal with their visitor pass restrictions. Usually you just had to know someone who worked there and had one, and that was about it.
The visitor pass rule was one pass per car. I remember that night we had one pass, and we had one car. I also remember that we had at least seven friends who wanted to go, and the car seated five. That is probably the reason I remember this occasion so well. We stuffed everyone in the car, sitting foot-to-arm-to-butt, and we made the hour long drive to the visitors’ viewing area. It was also quite chilly (for Florida), and there were a few delays prior to the launch. I think liftoff was scheduled for one or two a.m., but they kept delaying (very typical) until 3am local time. So we fought the cold, and talked to strangers (the field was full as usual). Then after those two hours, freezing and tired, we heard the final countdown over the outdoor public address system: “…3…2….1…. liftoff!” Everything around me lit up like it was being illuminated with a giant spotlight. It was so bright and we were so close, that it was almost like dawn breaking. For the first time I noticed an area immediately around the shuttle flame where the atmosphere was actually a little blue, like the sky on a clear day, but just around the shuttle. It was that bright. Totally amazing. (I have never seen that effect caught in a picture for some reason.)
Then, of course, the sound that a shuttle makes at the visitor site is hard to explain. The pitch is different than being far away. It’s not so much loud (yes, it’s loud too) as it is physical. By that I mean everything around you literally shakes. It’s like thunder from a storm, but happens for a much longer time, and is much deeper, and louder. On every occasion where I’ve been to the visitor site for a launch, cars with an alarm go off, but you don’t realize it until later because you can’t hear them. If you’re wearing long pants or any loose clothing, you can literally feel the cloth shaking against your skin. You can feel your hair slightly vibrating, and the ground shaking. There’s also a loud cracking or crackling sound that’s very obvious from that close.
That night I had a great time, and it was a great launch. Oh, and after the launch it took us at least 2 hours to make the one hour drive back to campus. Following every launch I can remember, there’s a large traffic jam that involves most of the surrounding county of Brevard, and lasts for hours afterwards. This would be my last on-site night launch, and was one of the best.
STS-95: John Glenn
Regardless of the politics around how it happened, John Glenn’s return trip to space was pretty incredible. I’m not sure how much of a publicity stunt it was, but I’m pretty sure most of the Space Coast was behind him. Our esteemed Central Florida Senator Bill Nelson went before Glenn, and Nelson probably had even less of a reason. But both were great advocates for the program, so it was probably worth it, at least for Central Florida.
For his particular flight, I was coming out of class and heading to my car. I had forgotten what time the launch was that day, but figured I’d catch it somehow. I started my car on the first floor of a campus parking garage, and on the radio I heard the countdown start (they frequently interrupted radio and TV stations for launch coverage). I heard “T-minus 10, 9, 8…” Seeing that the garage was mostly empty, I hit the accelerator and sped up, toward the top level of the garage. I think it had 5 levels, but being 40+ miles away I had a little time before I could see the shuttle anyway. When I got to the top of the parking structure, I saw that I wasn’t the only one with this idea. It wasn’t an empty parking garage as I thought, on the top it was full of students. I had to leave my car near the ramp and push through a few groups of people (they were more interested in talking) to get a good view point. I got there just in time to see the smoke plume in the distance before booster separation. John Glenn got to see space again, and for a bit longer that time.
After I graduated from college, I got a job working for a large aerospace company in Orlando. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to work on the shuttles, or at KSC (I was in IT), but I still kept up with the program. Of course, on this particular morning I wasn’t up with the program, I was sleeping-in after a party the night before. But on Sunday February 1st, 2003, I was suddenly startled awake by the phone ringing. It was my father. He was out of town on a business trip and therefore not on the coast where he was living normally. The conversation went something like this… My Dad: “Hey, did you hear anything this morning?” Me: “Hear…what…what time is it?” It must have been around 9am looking at the timeline, but I said “no, I don’t think so…why”. “They lost contact with the space shuttle a few minutes ago, I was curious if you heard the booms?”
At that point I was awake. I rushed to the living room to turn on the TV, and sure enough, all the channels had it live. Where was Columbia? No one knew. The reason my father asked me about the booms was not to find out if I heard an explosion, it was to find out if perhaps it landed and they just lost communication. Normally during a landing, most of Central Florida can hear the booms (two distinct booms) as the shuttle descends into the atmosphere. The booms are very loud (this was the reason that the Concorde was restricted over land). While I usually made a conscious effort to catch a launch, landings were harder to time. But on nearly every landing occasion where the shuttle went back to KSC, I sure heard it. The twin sonic booms (recording available here) were impressive in their own right. While not as dramatic as a launch, if you weren’t expecting it, say…sleeping, at 5am, you wouldn’t be for long as the huge booms sounded like dynamite going off down your street. Windows shook, doors rattled. The sound seemed to linger for seconds afterwards, and when you heard them you usually had a minute to run to the television and turn it on to catch the landing. (Only one time as a kid was I able to actually see the shuttle land in the distance.)
Back to that morning in February of ’03, there were no booms. And this time it was more eerie than when there were. I was glued to the news most of the day, but of course it would be many months before we would learn that a piece of foam hit the wing, breaking some tiles, and causing the shuttle disintegrated on re-entry.
STS-135: Last flight
This one I did not see live. I didn’t even see the launch on TV unfortunately. I did watch the landing, and like most of the world, I watched it on my computer, on the Internet. Also unlike any of the other flights I’d seen or watched on TV, this one I watched not with friends, but with my then 2-month old baby boy. It was nice to see it, albeit from far away, and share the moment with my son, as my father had shared the first launch with me.
STS- On a 747
So now here we are in the year 2012 and the shuttle fleet that remains is being dispatched to various museums around the country. I left Florida in 2006 when I moved first to Manassas, Virginia, which is only about 20 minutes from the Udvar-Hazy museum where the shuttle Discovery will be displayed. I was only there a year, but I visited the museum many times during that period. I would have loved to see a shuttle up close. Now I live in Boulder, Colorado, which has also had a history with the shuttle program through our local company Ball Aerospace, and the research laboratory NCAR . There aren’t any launches here, but at least it’s a space-oriented place.
While the shuttle program has ended, I hope the dreams, talents, and skill that went into making them as successful as they were, does not. I have a few friends now who still work there. One of my closest friends, Anna, who works at KSC, has helped me to realize how much the shuttles truly mean to those who supported them. They were like members of their families. And perhaps more telling about the workers there, is that while their jobs are in jeopardy, I think there’s more concern about the lack of an adequate replacement program to keep the technology moving. While it’s great that commercial companies are taking some of the reins for near-earth flights, NASA has a duty to go beyond what has been done. I look forward to one day taking my son to see a launch of the next rocket, that next amazing system to take humans ‘out there’. But in the meantime, I look forward to taking him around the U.S. so he can see each of the orbiters, and I can tell him some of these stories.
Here’s one of the best videos I’ve seen yet that attempts to capture the launch experience. Be sure to switch to 1080p and turn the volume up LOUD when you watch it! (Also maybe have a pair of 1000W 21″ sub-woofers under your seat.)
Credits: All photos Wikipedia or NASA as credited, or Flyopia where not credited.