Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Lit up with anticipation
We arrive at the launching site
The sky is still dark, nearing dawn
On the Florida coastline
"Countdown" by Rush (lyrics by Neil Peart, music by Geddy Lee/Alex Lifeson)

I have written on multiple occasions on this blog about my quest to see a launch of the Space Shuttle before the program is canned later this year. I've wanted to see the event in person since I was in kindergarten, when my dad woke me up early to watch the first launch of Columbia, nearing its 29th anniversary on April 12. I had made trips to Florida on several occasions last summer, but was hindered by technical problems or inclement weather. I was concerned that my relocation to Ft. Drum, NY would end my chances since the distance would make a quick trip impractical. When I realized that Discovery was scheduled to launch the day after Easter, a four-day weekend for the Army, I knew that this might be the last opportunity I would have. I'm fortunate that my grandmother lives across the state in St. Petersburg and she was willing to let me borrow her car, thus saving me from paying for a hotel and rental car.
I flew out of Syracuse early Saturday morning, April 3. A quick layover in Charlotte, NC and soon I was in the aptly-named Sunshine State. Unlike my previous trips, there were no predictions of thunderstorms. I made sure to have lunch at Chick-Fil-A, a chain that doesn't have any locations in New York. The rest of the day was split between sleep and Final Four basketball.
After the Easter service on Sunday morning, I began preparation for the drive to the coast. It turned out that Katherine, a friend of mine since college, was driving down from Tennessee to see the launch also. (I have long envied her for attending Space Camp.) We made arrangements to meet in Orlando.

This magic day when super-science
Mingles with the bright stuff of dreams

At about 3:30 am, we headed for Cape Canaveral. The NASA technical crew had managed to avoid any major technical glitches and the only weather issue was the possibility of a light fog. I found my viewing site of choice, near Port Canaveral just outside the gates of the Air Force base. We managed to squeeze in between some of the numerous cars that were already there and get an unobstructed view of the launch pad a few miles to the north, the white orbiter and its burnt orange fuel tank visible in the spotlights. After much hunting for a radio station with launch news (1300 AM) we listened closely for updates. The announcer mentioned that the Shuttle's destination, the International Space Station, would be passing overhead west to east in a few minutes, so we got out of the car and watched for movement. After a short while, I saw it passing close to the last-quarter moon--a bright spot of light moving steadily through the sky. (This was my second time seeing the ISS pass over; the first was at an open house at GSU's Hard Labor Creek Observatory outside Atlanta.) This made for a nice prelude to the main event.

Excitement so thick you could cut it with a knife
Technology high on the leading edge of life

We waited through a couple of tense moments as a particular indicator failed to light up, but the backup was working and the man at the switch said "We're 'go' with just one." As the countdown resumed from the T-minus-9 minute hold, the long list of various supervisors at the different monitoring stations each announced that their status was "go," meaning that there were no problems visible that would stop the launch. After the long wait, it seemed like almost no time passed between the four-minute and two-minute mark. I readied my camera, and checked with Katherine's binoculars as they announced that the cap on the fuel tank had been removed. Thirty seconds. This is actually going to happen, I thought. Seemingly without warning, a bright flash of light from the pad indicated that the main engines had ignited, and seemingly much faster than it looks on television an even brighter flash followed with a great plume of smoke surrounding the pad.

Scorching blast of golden fire
As it slowly leaves the ground
Tears away with a mighty force
The air is shattered by the awesome sound

There it was: a great tower of fire and smoke rising against the morning darkness. (This wasn't considered a night launch, but for all intents and purposes it was since the sun was not yet up.) Thanks to my digital camera, I managed to snap some shots without having to squint through a viewfinder. The tower of fire curved towards the southeast as the Shuttle performed its roll maneuver, and moments later we were treated to the delayed roar of the engines and the double-boom of the sound barrier being shattered. The Shuttle climbed higher, and I thought I saw the glow of the twin booster rockets being ejected, but I couldn't be sure as my sense of time was totally out of whack. We watched as the fireball became a smoky vapor, with the smoke from the rockets leaving a variety of twisted cloud shapes and the bright glow of the main engines becoming dimmer as it moved down toward the horizon against the glow of the sunrise. We got back in the car and crept out of the area through the long line of traffic, thrilled at the sight we had just seen and happy to hear the radio announcement that with the separation from the fuel tank Discovery had reached orbit. Mission accomplished!

Like a pillar of cloud, the smoke lingers
High in the air
In fascination, with the eyes of the world we stare...