I really hoped I wouldn’t be tired when I woke up to get on the road but I wasn’t even a bit tired. My son handled the 3:30am wake up call rather well. It was my mother that woke us both us. I don’t think she slept very well. Our first destination was a local mall parking lot to get my son’s KSCVC (Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex) ticket. We made the stop only to find out we had to travel to KSCVC to get the ticket. We were given a name to ask for and off we went, again.
It was dark and following my GPS didn’t seem as reliable as following the signs since millions had been here before me. I took the first exit that read KSC. Upon taking that exit I realized it was the back way into KSC. With such a high profile launch would it be closed off? I was nervous and irritated but still followed the signs. We got to a checkpoint and the guard was as happy as he could be. He told me to keep the placard in the window and which way to go. He said not to make any wrong turns and then laughed again. Do not make any wrong turns: noted.
As we drove down a few winding roads we could see lights just on the horizon. I knew that was the shuttle as it was always very well lit when being prepped during the night. A couple of turns later we were pulling into KSCVC and we were routed to a parking spot.
We were here. Would the weather cooperate?
We made our way to where we had to pick up our extra ticket and completed that transaction with no problems at all. We then had to stand in line for security checks. The air was soupy thick with humidity and I wondered how we’d stand waiting for launch. It was nearing 5AM at this point and we were inside the Visitor’s Center. After a bathroom break we made our way out towards the Rocket Garden and we would set up camp there.
It was so bizarre seeing so many people wide awake at such an hour. I should say that most people were wide awake. I saw more than a few people completely laid out trying to catch a snooze. Once again, the question was if the weather would improve enough.
I would like to note that my phone had next to no service, despite having full bars. The only thing I can pin it down to would be that some half a million other people were trying to get onto the same network. A text here and there would make it through but it was folly to try and do anything else. Phone was useless at this point but it would come in handy later.
The waiting game began as soon as we got there. While we had plenty to do we were all there for the main event. It seems there were the ones that weren’t very concerned with what was going on, how I do not know, and the ones that were obsessively trying to figure out what was going on. I fit into the latter. I had my phone, which was useless as a source of info due to the data network but the biggest info updates came via the P.A. system. A couple of guys behind us had a scratchy radio that would cut in and out. We mostly just sat and waited.
As T-0 drew nearer, we began to look at the sky more and more. It was looking promising and given that the previous 12-14 hours looked terribe, we’d take it. The clouds seemed to be pushing out over the ocean and a clear patch was directly above us and to the west. Weather forecasters were still unsure if any rain shows might pop up inside of the 15 mile radius. We crossed our fingers and to lighten things up we went and ahead and gave our go for launch. Would they listen to us? Doubt it! T-0 was 11:27AM EST and it was fast approaching.
It’s strange how the atmosphere began to get really charged at around 30 minutes to T-0. Whereas people had been wandering and exploring, they began to flock to their camped out areas and wait contently. Add us to that bunch but I couldn’t sit still and just wait, so I kept popping over to the nearby PA speakers to listen to the commentators on NASA TV. The polling of all the groups is one of the most exciting parts for me. That signifies that it’s really about to go down, assuming no one says “no go”. Mike Leinbach was the launch director and he was the one that made the final call. After having made the rounds he finally got to Houston Flight. They said to keep going around to poll others and to come back to them. That made my heart skip a beat but when Mike came back to Houston they said that for the record they were “go”. I little voice in my head silently shouted “yes!” I felt like I was on the team that had scored the touchdown to give us the lead yet with time still on the clock, the game wasn’t over!
Now we found our way back to our spot and waited. The next big event would be coming out of the T-9 hold. Once the countdown from there began it was a fully automated process and no other holds were built in. For all intents and purposes, once it started, you’d see a launch in 9 minutes. I held my breath as it drew near and just like that the clock read 8:59, 8:58, 8:57… It was really happening. I could hardly contain myself I was probably blabbering like a fool though I don’t recall acting that way. During this part of the countdown we would encounter several milestones. A few being retracting of the arm that fuels the external tank, switching to internal power, pressurizing tanks and having the astronauts close and lock their visors. Everything was going as planned until T-0:31.
The damn thing stopped
At 31 seconds until liftoff the clock suddently stopped*. My stomach sank and a groan eminated from the crowd. All this way, all this time and all for nothing? It was the nightmare scenario of it coming down to the final seconds and it being scrubbed because maybe a bird landed on the tank or something obscure and unforseen had happened. We could hear controllers rambling on about something but I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Before I could really catch on a cheer erupted from the crowd. Ok, that’s good, I’m assuming that’s good, right? At that point I could hear the controllers saying they’d like to resume the countdown. At that point I was nearing being in tears from joy. I didn’t know why the clock had stopped but who cares as long as it goes up! The slight delay pushed the launch time back by about 2 minutes to 11:29AM.
The controller came over the PA and said the countdown would resume on his mark; 3, 2, mark! The clock was moving again and whereas it had seemed to drag on and on for hours, the final few dozen seconds were flying by. My mind was racing, my heart was racing. I had no idead how I would react to what I was about to see.
The igniters start up to burn off excess hydrogen that might have gathered under the vehicle
Go for main engine start. We all watched the three main engines roar to life on the big screen television near the rocket garden. My heart was pounding and we had all started to count down with the commentator, George Diller.
Suddenly everyone stopped counting as maybe we all held our breath…
Cheers erupted and I think we all lost our minds momentarily as we watched it jump off the pad with a jolt. We were 8 miles from the pad so the sound would take some time to reach us but we’d easily be able to see Atlantis clear the building in front of us. We were all straining our eyes looking…looking and finally, there she was. Atlantis came out from behind the IMAX building. My first thought was “WOW that thing is hauling ass!” though I think I only said “WHOA!”.
There it was. There we were. We had finally done it. We gazed upon the shuttle in flight one last time with millions of other people sharing one common goal; to witness history. It was short lived though as the low cloud deck would soon swallow her up and allow to to ride into the heavens with a bit of privacy. The show wasn’t over yet because shortly after going into the clouds, the sound came. What a sound it was. It’s hard to describe, really. It wasn’t loud so much as it was deep. It was the deepest, lowest sound I’d ever heard and felt. It shook everything from the buildings to the ground to your ear drums. My grin stretched from ear to ear and my mom and I hugged each other. My son wasn’t quite 8 years old yet and he hadn’t fully understood what he was witnessing but he was into it and carrying on with everyone else.
Relax and enjoy the show
We watched Atlantis ride into orbit on the big screen. Most people had started to scatter before then but I traditionally watched all eight and a half minutes of the ascent. Today was no different. It was only after that we began to call people and text people. My cousin had texted me and said he heard it was going up and wished the best. My wife said she was crossing fingers as well. I was so glad it went up so I could offload my excitement to them. I hadn’t relaxed in so long it was like taking a deep breath. At that point, nothing mattered to me. Life was good, despite the lingering possibility of having to have my gallbladder removed. I would let nothing rain on my parade. It was a great day and I was going to relish it for the rest of my life.
*As for why the countdown stopped. It was a simple computer error. The swing arm (orbiter access) didn’t tell the computer it had moved out of the way. They visually confirmed it was retracted and off she went
I wanted to add this video to the post. It starts with the NASA TV coverage and while the visual coverage remains, I slowly blend in the sounds we heard. The audio is surprisingly good for a basic smartphone. I was told to not focus on snapping pics and vid of your first launch. I figured I’d turn it on and put it down in the chair and watch the shuttle go up with my own eyes. 🙂