Arriving at the hotel at 3:00 am meant we had less than an hour for sleep. Crew friends and family were set to “muster” at 4:30 am. I dithered for about 15 minutes about whether to sleep, then settled for a 1/2 hour power nap. We were up and on the way in too short order – sleep walking, pretty much.
There were actually two check in events. The first is at a park near Banana Creek. Names are compared to the invitation list and folks generally mill around the pavilion waiting for the first set of buses to take us to KSC. Check in was uneventful (we had doused ourselves with mosquito repellant.) After a while the buses came, everyone got on board, and we were transported to the Visitor Center. I grabbed a second nap on the trip.
Once we arrived, there was a second check in. All launch guests are processed through the Visitor Center – VIPs, NASA invitees, crew friends and family. Suzanne Singleton, the intrepid crew “cat-herder” (STS-135 Crew Secretary) processed dozens of tired but excited people, and did so with a smile and a kind word – most welcome at that time of the morning.
Eventually we made our way outside. The weather was not encouraging. Clouds had gathered in the hours after tanking and thunderstorms were coming and going. Standing inside the KSC visitor center, we made it out to the “rocket garden” just in time for a Stage 2 lightning warning to be issued for all of KSC. To the southwest there was a nasty-looking wall cloud headed straight for us. It looked alot like the photo below, which I borrowed from a KSC website.
The vehicles themselves are staffed with a driver and a guide, usually a retired KSC worker who volunteers for the job. Over the years these have been wonderful people who are enthusiastic and excited to be able to pass on some knowledge about NASA, the Center, the Shuttle Program, and to celebrate with family and friends. They talk pretty much of the way to the viewing site, explaining what is what and providing a history of the Center.
One thing they never fail to point out is the gigantic eagle’s nest high up in a pine tree along Kennedy Parkway North. One of my favorite things, it has been there for decades and is larger than a king bed. Weighing in excess of 800 pounds, the nest has been productive for decades. The photo below (also borrowed from a KSC website) was taken in 1992, with one fledgling in the nest and another egg being nurtured. The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) can be seen in the background.
After arriving at the Banana Creek viewing area we spent some time finding people we knew and catching up. It was like “old home week” for me. The first launch I had attended was STS-89 in 1998 and I ran into someone I hadn’t seen since then. That provided a nice kind of symmetry for the event, like bookends.
All morning, I kept pushing away my feelings. Being there was a celebratory event, but also an ending. Most of the focus was on the weather, which continued to be annoyingly “no-go” at only a 30% likelihood for launch. Clouds hung over the area and mist was in the air. Nonetheless, the stands filled up fast. After taking a few “laps” around the viewing site I found my way back to Sandy’s family & friends area, and took a seat. Typically, “Hurricane” Rosy – Sandy Magnus’s mom and a great friend – was coordinating.
I spent some time catching up with other pals and also with Stephanie Wilson – another member of The Sardines I’d first met in the late ’90′s when she was an AsCan.
About an hour before the launch window, the weather improved to 60% probability for a “go”. We progressed through the countdown holds, including an unexpected one at T-31 seconds, and then held our breath. Weather was still no-go but the clouds were lifting.
I was surprised to receive text messages from the Mission Control Center viewing room in Houston, relaying that there was no lightning in the area and only popup showers remained. As we crept toward the launch window, listening to the poll of the launch team inside the Launch Control Center, the only potential show-stopper was the “No-Go” initially issued for violation of the Return to Landing Site (RTLS) weather constraints. However, Mike Moses (Shuttle Integration Launch Manager) issued a waiver for RTLS, later explaining that the showers would have cleared by the time the Shuttle would have returned (had it needed to). With a “go” for launch, the stands exploded with applause, then silenced as the countdown ticked down to 0:00.
Unbelievably, the clouds had parted. The mains lit. I’m a lousy videographer, and at the last second had elected to leave the big camera behind so I could fully experience the launch. I shot what I could of it using my little Canon. You’ll see it veer off at the end, which was when I started crying, right after NASA PAO announcer Rob Navias said “The space shuttle spreads its wings one final time for the start of a sentimental journey into history.”
Me, and just about everybody else.