Wednesday, March 2, 2011

As Promised, STS-133 Launch Video...

Photo of Discovery Launch Taken By My Dad

I promised if the shuttle launched as scheduled, I would post my video from the event. Well, on Thursday afternoon, after some VERY tense moments when it appeared that range safety was a no-go due to a computer screen glitch, the problem was fixed with two seconds to spare in the launch window, and Discovery roared into the sky for her final mission. It was every bit as exciting and emotional as I remembered.

It has been over 18 years since I saw my last and only other shuttle launch, STS-53, which was coincidentally also a Discovery mission. It was early December, 1992. My husband was, at that time, my fiance, and I had won a NASA award that treated us to an all expenses paid early honeymoon to Cape Canaveral. The launch was supposed to occur right at daybreak, but it was unseasonably cold (I guess cold is always unseasonable in Florida), and ice had built up on the shuttle's external tank.

The launch window for the mission was several hours long since no rendezvous or time-specific orbit insertion was required, so we waited for the sun to rise and work her magic on the ice. By 8:24 AM, the ice was melted, and we watched in awe as Discovery shot into the morning sky. The astronauts were on their way to a week in the heavens, and we were left behind on Earth in disbelief that it was over so quickly.

As the excitement of that launch abated, the reality of our VERY early morning wakeup call and VERY cold bodies began to set in. We had been wrapped in blankets and sitting on icy aluminum bleachers for hours in the pre-dawn chill. While the launch was the primary purpose of our trip, we were feeling a little cheated by the weather. Upon returning to our hotel, my husband-to-be and I packed up our things, hopped in a rental car, and launched ourselves south to the Keys and warmer temperatures as quickly as a mere car could take us.

Fast forward 18 or so years, and things at the same viewing site are just a little different. The aluminum bleachers are still there, but a spectacular Apollo/Saturn Museum has been built adjacent to them with a snack bar, a gift shop, and actual restrooms. The Florida afternoon sun is shining, and we are in shorts basking in the 80-degree warmth. This time around, my husband and I have over 17 years of marriage under our middle-aged belts and two middle-school-aged kids along for the launch. The launch window is just six minutes long due to a planned rendezvous with the International Space Station, but all is green for an on-time launch with 20 minutes to go.

That's when we start to hear some ominous words over the sound system broadcasting comments from launch control and the various launch support elements. Range safety is reporting that they are no-go for launch due to a malfunctioning computer screen. Everything else is PERFECT, and for lack of a computer display, the launch could be scrubbed. There is precious little time with a six minute launch window to troubleshoot. We all hold our collective breath hoping that the range safety folks are pulling a rabbit out of their hat to fix the problem so we won't have to come out the next day and do it all over again. Launch control takes the countdown clock down to a hold at 5 minutes to give range safety a few extra minutes to work their problem.

The sound system breaks away from the conversation between launch control and range safety to ask us all to join in the singing of the National Anthem. We are all too distracted with the possibility of a scrubbed mission to lift our voices with gusto. It is a half hearted effort that seems to drag on forever as we are all still tense with worry over the status of the range.

As the Anthem finally ends, we rejoin the launch conversation, and hear the launch director announce that range safety is now, against all odds, green for launch. They have come through with "the right stuff", corrected their technical issue, and launch control will pick up the count immediately, leaving two seconds to spare in the launch window. The crowd erupts in delirious cheers as the final five minutes of the countdown clock begin to tick away toward the event that we all have gathered to witness - the final launch of Discovery.

3, 2, 1...

Our nervousness about the launch not occurring that day quickly shifted to nervousness and excitement about the actual launch. Shuttle launches are always accompanied by an element of fear for the safety of the astronauts. We've all witnessed the horror of a launch gone bad, and there's nothing routine about the power and explosive thrust required to get a shuttle and her crew off the ground. We went from holding our breath because the shuttle might not launch to holding our breath because it WAS going to launch.

Before we knew it, time was up and the launch was upon us. We saw the billow of steam start to engulf the pad and the shuttle and then the sparks of the main engines followed by the flame of the solid rocket boosters. After a couple of seconds, Discovery emerged from the thick cloud of steam with her rockets glowing like the sun, lighting up even the bright afternoon sky as she streaked up and across it, leaving a puffy white trail in her wake. After a few more seconds, the sound finally made its way to us, and it was as intense as I recalled - roaring and crackling with power. I won't try to describe the way it feels except to say that when the force of the launch travels the three miles from the launch pad and arrives at the viewing site, you feel the vibration with every ounce of your being.

I intended to make a fabulous video with my Flip camera, but I was shaking with excitement, and the result is pretty shaky as well. I did get the American flag in the foreground at one point, which is kind of cool. My Mom did a better job with her iPhone from her viewing site five miles away from the pad on the Kennedy Center causeway. We are both "woohoo"ing throughout our videos - I think it's genetic. I've included those videos below along with one I saw online that a guy took with his iPhone from an airliner after a late departure from Orlando - what awesome timing! I also included a slideshow that I put together of our day as a thank you to our friends who arranged our passes. It includes a cool stillshot photo sequence taken by my Dad with his camera on a tripod, all set to Katy Perry's Firework (come on, you can stand to hear it one more time...)

If you want to experience it for yourself, you have one or two more opportunities. I doubt you will be able to line up a Space Center pass for the April launch of Endeavor since there will be so much press (it's a lottery system, so give it a shot), but there are plenty of great viewing sites around Cape Canaveral and the surrounding area. Take your pick along the Banana River, the Indian River, the Cocoa Beach Pier, the cruise ship port, the Publix parking lot, or the side of the road. There also might be one more mission over the summer. NASA may get funding to launch Atlantis once more to the ISS.

Sounds like a good excuse for a Florida road trip to me!  Even if you miss the launch, you'll benefit from a few days in beautiful Cape Canaveral or Cocoa Beach, and a tour of the Space Center is worth the trip alone, if a little bittersweet. The Space Coast could use the support of our tourist dollars with space shuttle jobs all but gone and the future of American spaceflight murky. It's inconceivable to me that the glory of NASA's manned space program from Mercury to the space shuttle is almost a thing of the past and hard not to see it as a reflection of the times. I'm not a fan of the commercial, for-profit approach. But hey, who knows, maybe Apple and Steve Jobs' next big product release will be an iRocket that will get us to Mars...

As astronomer Fred Hoyle once observed, "Space isn't remote at all. It's only an hour's drive away if your car could go straight upwards..."

Happy trails, Discovery!

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