Today’s #reverb10 prompt reads as follows: Moment. Pick one moment during which you felt most alive this year. Describe it in vivid detail (texture, smells, voices, noises, colors). (Author: Ali Edwards)
I’m feeling a bit guilty about this prompt. As the father of a two year old, I feel like the moment I felt most alive should involve my son, but alas it doesn’t. It involved the most complicated system every built by humans. I’ve already blogged about my experience seeing the Space Shuttle Discovery launch on the STS-131 Mission early the morning of April 5, 2010. It was a truly amazing experience and I think it was went I felt most alive in 2010. I’m going to describe the experience again, following the prompt’s instructions.
The launch was scheduled for Monday morning at 0622, but my day started on Sunday morning. I awoke and drove from my friends’ house to SEA , returned the rental, headed through security, boarded my flight, and took my seat. The next several hours were a blur of excitement, expectations, anxiety, and many other emotions. I arrived at MCO at 1715, got my car and drove the 45 minutes to the hotel and checked in. I didn’t know what to do, so I played on my computer a bit and then headed north towards Kennedy Space Center. I drove around looking for a place to have dinner, but alas, it was easter night, so there wasn’t much open. I ended up at Cracker Barrel for my dinner.
I arrived at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex at about 2345. Walking from my car to the front gate, I was amazed at the size of the place. There is a rocket garden with real rockets from our space-faring history. They were lit up from the ground and each had a monolithic look to them. There was full sized mock up of an orbiter as well as an external tank and two SRBs. They were there, full size for me to see. I was too far away to see the launch pad, but the xenon lights bathing Pad 39A with light were lighting up the eastern sky. After going through the security checks, I entered the visitor complex and started walking around with my jaw hanging down. I wandered for about an hour, then got in line to see the Hubble IMAX 3D movie.
The movie was good, but I was a bit disappointed. I am a very technical person, so I would have liked to see more technical details about the HST and the STS-125 mission, but the visuals were truly stunning. The movie takes you into galaxies, nebulae, and the guts of the Hubble Space Telescope. From there, I scouted out the location of my “Breakfast with an Astronaut.” I queued for about 15 minutes, then was escorted in to the large conference room where the breakfast took place. The room was fairly harshly lit, especially for 0200, but I went in and took my seat. At my table were a family from Oregon, a family from Canada, a father and daughter from Jordan and myself. The room, which could have accompdated about 20 guests was about half empty.
The breakfast was institutional, but good. Runny scrambled eggs, hash browns, and bacon were my food of choice. After two plates, I was full. Our astronaut was Jon McBride a veteran of the STS-41-G flight in 1984 on board the Challenger. Like the movie, his presentation lacked the technical detail I would have loved, but i enjoyed it and learned from it nonetheless.
After breakfast, I queued again to get on the bus to take me to the NASA Causeway, the location from which I would view the launch. At this point, It was about 0300. I started surveying the people around me. There were a couple fo families, a couple of guys in their twenties, a guy in his forties and me. After a few minutes, we were talking like we had known each other for years. Telling our stories and joking around. This is when I began to feel like I was part of a community, not just an outsider there to view a launch, but part of a group there to participate in a shared experience. We stayed on line for about 45 minutes, then boarded our bus for the trip to the causeway.
On this 30 minute trip, I could feel the excitement building on board the bus. When Launch Pad 39-A came in to view, the bus became silent for a minute or two while all took in the view. When we arrived on the causeway, our driver gave us a bunch of instructions, very few of which sunk in. When he opened the door, we were off like a shot trying to get the best viewing location. We jumped from the warmth of the bus to the cool of a Florida night. On the bus I made fast friend with the man in his forties, so we stuck together. We headed a bit further away than most of the others were going. We ended up on the rope line with literally front row seats for the launch. My view from the rope line looked like this. There was nothing but six miles of water and a couple of low lying islands between me and the launch pad.
Six miles may seem like a lot, but I swear I could have reached out and touched the orbiter. I was so focused on my view and the shuttle that I didn’t notice the thousands of people who had filled in behind me. It took me about an hour to get my camera set up after which, I looked behind me and saw the hundred person deep crowd. It’s warm in Florida over night. I wore a t-shirt and shorts and I was perfectly comfortable. There were loudspeakers broadcasting the audio stream from NASA, so we felt like we were involved in the countdown.
I spent a lot of time before the launch getting my camera ready because I DIDN’T want to spend much time at all in the last few minutes before liftoff or any time after liftoff having to fiddle with settings. I knew going in that I wouldn’t come away with many pictures of the launch becuase I wanted to experience it first hand, not through a camera’s view finder.
As the countdown continued, the excitement and anticipation grew in the entire crowd as each second ticked. When we approached the T-20 minute built in hold in the countdown, we were ready to go. As a group, we wanted to see the launch and I felt confident it was going to happen. The T-20 minute hold ends about an hour and ten minutes before the launch, so when the clock started ticking again, we were in the final throes of our excitement. The clock counted for 11 minutes and we reached the T-9 minute hold, which lasts for about 45 minutes. Just before it ends, the Launch Director takes his final poll of whether the various systems are go for launch. As the hold progressed, we grew more and more excited.
Just before the Launch Director’s poll, we were treated to a sight. We looked up and watched the International Space Station fly over. Discovery was launching on a mission to the ISS, so it was particularly awesome to see the station fly over just before launch. This wasn’t sheer happenstance, the launch window is timed so that the shuttle takes off just after the ISS flies over, so it can catch up to it. What was unusual was that we got to see it. the ISS is only visible near duck and dawn. If this has been a launch in the middle of the day or night, we wouldn’t have been able to see the ISS, but because this launch was just before dawn, we were able to. Needless to say, it was awesome.
Shuttle launches are fickle things, they happen on time about 50% of the time. Each second that went by getting us closer to the launch was one less thing that could go wrong. I knew going in that I might have to go out into the night several times before I actually saw the Shuttle launch. I also knew that there was a chance that I might not even see the launch. It could get scrubbed for any number of reasons, and I was prepared to do this every night for a week if I had to.
The launch director’s poll is really done in two part. The first in the NASA Test Director polling all of the launch control stations at KSC as to their readiness. After the NTD gets a go from each of his controllers, he informed the Launch Director that the launch team is go. The Launch Director then polls several other groups and gives the final go for launch. We got to the Launch Director’s poll and each of the stations started responding back to the NTD. There was a stream of controllers saying they were go for launch. The excitement in the crowd grew with each pronouncement of “Go” by a controller. After getting through almost all the controllers, the NTD asked the Range Safety Officer if ge was go for launch. Instead of a go like his fellow controllers, “Range” as this position is called, indicated that he was not go.
Upon the utterance of these words, the entire crowd skipped a breath. This was going to be it, the launch was going to have to be scrubbed because of a range issue. We kept on listening. Range was talking about an error in software that might affect the launch. The murmurs were beginning, our launch was going to get cancelled by a software error. Remember how I said above that neither the Hubble IMAX nor the Astronaut breakfast were technical enough for me? This desire for and knowledge of the technical helped me out here. I knew that small glitches such as these often happen during a countdown and were more than often overcome. I was still scared, as all of my neighbors were. We listened intently to the radio chatter and finally, Range gave a go for launch and a cheer erupted in the crowd. We were getting closer. The NTD completed his poll and the Launch Director did his poll and gave STS-131 an official go for launch. The crowd erupted in applause again.
Once the countdown clock resumed at T-9 minutes, each second felt like an eternity. Each second that passed, the closer to launch we were. My breath was getting shorter, the excitement was building. I kept on taking pictures. Looking back now, I can see the time going by based what was going on in the pictures. I took my final shots of Discovery on the pad and quickly changed the settings on my camera to post launch mode.
T-1 minute… 45 seconds… time slowed down even more… 30 seconds… 15 seconds… 10 seconds…
9…8…7…6 -main engine start… 5…4…3…2…1…LAUNCH
The sky went from dark to light in an instant. The Shuttle lurched toward the sky. It went up and up and up. About 6 seconds after I saw the light and the shuttle take off, we heard the noise and felt the heat and vibration generated by the shuttle’s three main engines and the two solid rocket boosters. I’m not kidding, I felt the heat of the engines from 6 miles away. The Shuttle continued upward. Time was starting to move faster… I heard the calls of the crew, controllers, and commentator… Time slowly sped up for a while… then stopped for one brief second…
On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger took of from nearly the same location as I was watching Discovery take off from. On that fateful morning in 1986, 73 seconds into the flight, the Challenger disaster occurred. Here’s some technical information: The engines on the Shuttle, when combined with the SRBs have the power not only to lift the Shuttle 200 mines skyward, but to change their velocity from 0 to 17,000 MPH in 8 minutes. That’s a lot of energy. As the Shuttle is heading skyward, the main engines are actually throttled down to reduce the pressure on the vehicle as it heads to space. Usually, just over 60 seconds into the flight, the engines are throttled back up to full power. Each mission, the CAPCOM in the mission control center in Houston tells the crew that they are “Go at throttle up.” The last radio communication from the crew of Challenger was Commander Dick Scobee acknowledging this fact , saying, “roger, go at throttle up.”
Though few of us on that April morning were counting in our heads the number of seconds that had gone by, we knew that the throttle up call would be coming. I knew that that “go at throttle up” meant we were in the timeframe of the Challenger disaster. When the CAPCOM called “Discovery, you are go at throttle up,” all of us on the causeway took a collective breath and held it for just a second. When the crew acknowledged the call, we held it even tighter. When Discovery kept on heading to space, we let our breath out and breathed again…
Discovery was headed to orbit, a process that takes about eight minutes. Once those minutes passed, we cheered for the crew and the staff on the ground who made the launch possible. We cheered for ourselves because we got to see one of the most amazing sights of our lives.
As Discovery headed to orbit, the sky was getting lighter as dawn neared. Its engines lit up the sky, after which the dawn lit up its exhaust plume.
This was a once in a lifetime experience for me. It was worth every ounce of effort expended to get there. It was truly a life changing experience.