Between Two Launches


Four years ago today, I was standing on the Kennedy Space Center Causeway to watch the launch of the Ares I-X rocket.

It was an exciting day; at the time, it was the beginning of the future, laying the groundwork for later flights of the Ares I vehicle. It was the first test launch of a new design for a crewed launch vehicle in almost 30 years, and I got to be there for it.

I remember there being some discussion of what would happen, some concerns from armchair rocket scientists that the test would go horribly wrong. From my uninvolved observer’s perspective in NASA education, I was willing to bet that if they weren’t very sure it was going to fly they wouldn’t be launching it, but I figured, either way, it would be quite a show.

And it was. She was beautiful. Ares I-X was incredibly beautiful on the pad, towering over the shuttle launch complex. And she was incredibly beautiful in flight, looking like she was defying the laws of physics in a way I’d never seen a rocket do before. Simply amazing.

Later, there would be discussion about the second stage recontact after separation, but in real time, it was incredible, and I still think it was completely worthy of its recognition as Time magazine’s Invention of the Year. What the Ares I-X team accomplished in the time they had and with the resources they had is amazing.

It’s been an interesting four years since then. Ares was cancelled; SLS was begun and in two years has completed its preliminary design review. Personally, my two-and-a-half-year “sabbatical” from NASA fell within that time. A lot of changes, for the agency and myself.

Looking back on that day, I’m struck by how blessed I am by my part of those changes. Like I said, watching I-X, I was basically nothing but a fan. We had a poster on the wall by my office, a gorgeous movie poster design about the mission. I saw that poster again recently in a co-worker’s office, and realized that back then, I’d never paid attention to the names in the credits. Those names meant nothing to me then. Today, they’re my co-workers, members of the team I’m a part of. I’m incredibly, incredibly blessed to be part of the team this time for SLS, instead of just an observer.

I talked to my boss a while back about that day four year ago, about how beautiful the rocket looked on the pad. Kimberly agreed, telling about standing at the base of the vehicle and looking up at her, towering well over 300 feet high into the sky. And, yeah, Kimberly’s rocket-on-the-pad story totally trumps my view from across the river. But it gave me something to look forward to, something to work toward. I want to see SLS on the pad.

And I cannot wait, I cannot wait, to see her fly. If this is going to be my first time being part of the team, I’m incredibly lucky that it’s for what will be the most spectacular launch anyone’s ever seen.

Not a bad motivation to get up and go to work every morning.

More Post-Launch Thoughts


• That’s the best picture I took of the STS-135 launch. I took my camera, just in case, and had my iPhone, but really before I ever went down that I was going to do like I did the first time I saw one launch, STS-125, and just watch. I’ve taken pictures of three shuttle launches since then, and gotten some good pictures, but I wanted to watch the last one take place with my own eyes, and not through a viewfinder. I was particularly glad since, as again with STS-125, a low-cloud ceiling meant that the shuttle was visible for only a short time before it disappeared, and I’m glad I didn’t waste that time trying to get the perfect shot. I knew there would be plenty of great pictures of this launch; it would be OK if none of them were mine.

• This was my tenth trip down specifically to watch a launch. On four of those trips, I watched, or attempted to watch, from the NASA Causeway at Kennedy Space Center. I watched one each from KARS Park and from the Saturn V Center. On two trips, the launch was scrubbed early enough each day that I never even made it to a viewing area.

On my first trip, I had no idea what I was doing. I went down with some friends, and we headed down to Highway 1 on the riverside in Titusville the night before the launch to scout the area out, and found this cool pier jutting out from a public park. We came back the next day, and set up on the farthest leg of the pier. The launch was scrubbed near the last minute, and I got possibly the worst sunburn of my life. We came back the next day, and sat for a while in the rain, only to have the launch scrubbed two or three hours before T0. We drove home the next day, and watched the launch on television in my living room.

I’d been back to that pier several times, generally on the day before launch to look at the pad at night. But it ended up that I had never gone back there to try to watch a launch again. Until last week. Friday morning, we got up early, and headed back to my pier in Titusville, with the weather looking no more promising than it ever had.

And yet, it flew. And I got to end my shuttle-launching streak where I started it, successfully watching a launch from where I’d first tried unsuccessfully five years earlier.

• I lost my radio scanner on this trip. I had it clipped to my belt, using it to listen to an amateur-radio rebroadcast of the NASA TV launch feed, and at about T -2 minutes, I leaned over to pick something up, and it came off my belt, bounced once on the pier, and dived into the water.

I was sad for about two seconds before realizing there was really no reason. I’d had the thing for 15 years. My parents gave it to me when I started my first post-college newspaper job; I used it to listen to the emergency band channels at home so I could go take pictures of house fires or car wrecks or the like. And when I left the newspaper business, it sat neglected on a shelf until five years ago, when I went to a launch for the first time, and used it to keep up with what was going on. It’s served me well in the years since for that purpose. So after all that time, I was a little sad to lose it. But I realized that it had served its purpose. Twice. It had been with me through my newspaper days until they were done, and it had been with me through the shuttle launches until they were done. It was sort of fitting to lose it right as it finished it purpose. Dulce et decorum est.

• The trip itself had an ambient feeling of it being the last time. We drove into Titusville on Thursday night and I saw the VAB for the first time on this trip, a familiar vista over the many trips I’ve made down there over the past few years. And now, I don’t know when I’ll see it again. And that’s weird. And there was a lot of that — places I didn’t know when I’d see again, places that I went while I still had a chance, places that I’ve never been and may now never get to. A lot of memories from a lot of trips over a significant period of time. I still haven’t fully wrapped me mind around the fact that the space shuttle program itself was almost over, and so those feelings of an ending were probably the closest I came to experiencing that finality.

• And the launch itself? I still can’t describe my emotions. There were too many, all at once. There was the standard awe, the standard elation, a tinge of sadness, a visceral sense of history. But the significance? Still beyond me.

Yeah, it was an ending. And, yes, the standard way of doing business is over. But I’m a dreamer. It’s hard not to have hope. The old way is done. I have no idea what exactly the future looks like. But there are other dreamers bringing it about right now. I have a real feeling that things will not only be as good as they are 15 years from now, they’ll be better than we expect. I couldn’t help but think o Isaiah 43:19:

“For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.”

I Was There


20110708-064456.jpg

I reserve the right to have more thoughts later, but this an e-mail I sent a friend tonight that I’m posting here as a starter.

I saw it.

It was, from a spectator standpoint, not the best launch I’ve been to; definitely in the lower half. It really looked like it wasn’t going to happen today because of weather. The weather ended up complying, but being very cloudy, so she disappeared pretty quickly after launch. In fact, she was out of sight behind clouds long before the sound reached us from the pad.

That said …

That didnt matter. At all. I was there. I was there.

I can’t tell you what that means. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that. I was there, in person, for the end, for the last launch.

I’ve followed the program my entire life. The shuttle was the first American spacecraft to fly in my life, and I was five when I watched the first launch on TV with my dad.

I’ve spent the last nine years of my life writing about it, and I wrote the story on the last launch before I left NASA. I’ve written a book about the shuttle. This was my ninth time driving down to see a launches, and the fifth I’ve seen. I’ve been invested.

And I got to be there, got to see it with my own eyes when she flew for the last time. And I’m glad.

I can’t believe it’s over. I really have no sense of that yet. I can’t wrap my mind around it.

Even just these mundane parts are slow to really dawn — Forget understanding what it means for the program to be over, I’m still working on the fact that my coming down here to watch launches is over. I don’t know when I’ll see the VAB again. I don’t know when I’ll drive down this road again. I’ve been down here at least a dozen times over the last few years. And I have no idea when I’ll be back. It’s weird.

OK, long answer to a short question. Sorry.

All Good Things


One more time.

One last time.

At 11:26 EDT today, the space shuttle is scheduled to launch.

For the last time.

Please watch. Whatever you’re doing, stop. Turn on a TV, watch online, whatever. Just watch.

Because you’ll never see it again.

(For updates on the status of the launch, I recommend Spaceflight Now.)

Truth be told, I’m cheating a bit. I’m writing this post on Sunday before the launch, just to make sure it gets written and posted in time to remind people to watch. I’m a little emotional writing it. I can’t imagine how I’ll feel that day.

The other day, the last thing I wrote for NASA was published online, STS-135: Wheels Stop. I wanted that to be my last act there, my closure — to finish out the space shuttle program after writing about it for almost a third of the program. I believe that while NASA is going to go through a difficult transition, it does have a bright future ahead of it. But those will be someone else’s stories; someone else’s spacecraft. Mine, the one I first watched fly when I was five years old, has run the good race, and will soon finish the course.

I have had the good fortune of seeing all but two of the shuttle launches since the beginning of last year in person. The last one, STS-134, I drove down to see, but had to come back when it was delayed a couple of weeks. I ended up watching it on television. Launches always move me. It’s not unusual for me to have to stifle tears. But I was utterly unprepared for how hard that one hit me. I remember someone asking me a question while we were watching, and having to take a moment to compose myself before I could find my voice to answer.

There were a lot of reasons why. It was the first launch after I left the agency, and that had an impact. It was disappointing to watch it on TV after investing so much in trying to see it, and there was that, too.

But more than ever before, it hit me — this is the end.

It was the last launch of Endeavour. And the end of the program was now only one launch away.

I’ve known it was coming forever. I wrote about the impending end for years. But two things were different. When I started writing about it, there was a plan. We were going to retire the shuttle, and Constellation was going to take us to the moon. An end was coming, but something better was underway. Heck, a couple of years ago, I stood on the causeway and watched in person the first flight of that new era. But that Vision faded. And now, the future is a little more clouded.

The other thing that was different is that the end was no longer an eventuality, it was immediate. It is upon us. I was watching it unfold. The idea was one thing, the reality something else.

There is still a future. And it may be brighter than I dreamed that day two years ago. The Vision is no longer proprietary to the U.S. government, it now rests in the hands of visionaries. And that’s not a bad place for it. With any luck, I hope to continue to contribute to that future, working with those who want to bring it about now.

But today …

Today is still an ending. Take the time out of your schedule to participate in it, to share with the nation and the world a historic moment, to honor one of our country’s greatest achievements, one last time.

Discovery, Wheels Stop


Unfortunately, it’s a little hard right now to really write anything meaningful about the fact that Discovery has now returned to the Earth for the last time.

Last year, I wrote an emotional piece like that about the final flight of Atlantis. Only to later learn that it wasn’t the final flight of Atlantis.

I’m pretty sure Discovery has flown her last. But last year’s post makes it a little harder to be in that same place.

Discovery and I have a long history.

She was the first vehicle I ever saw sitting on the pad. I was down at Kennedy Space Center prior to the STS-114 mission, and she was waiting for launch. Granted, she was later rolled back and rolled out again, but I got to see her nonetheless.

She was the first vehicle I ever drove down to watch launch (or, rather, not launch). I spent a couple of days on the riverside in Titusville back in 2006 as the STS-121 mission was scrubbed twice. Got a horrible sunburn, too.

She was the first — and so far only — vehicle I’ve ever been close enough to touch. When I was down at Kennedy for the STS-125 launch in May 2009, I got to tour her Orbiter Processing Facility while they were working on her. Being that close to her was an amazing experience and an incredible honor.

She wasn’t the first shuttle I got to see launch, but I did eventually get to see her launch. She was the first — and so far only — shuttle that I’ve seen launch twice, though I hope to rectify that.

I really don’t remember if she was the first one I saw fly overhead in orbit, but I did get to see her that way, and that’s an amazing experience as well.

And now, there’s only one experience left for Discovery and I to have — for me to go visit her in a museum.

Is it wrong that prospect feels a little like going to see her in a nursing home?

I’m glad she gets the opportunity. I’m glad she did what we asked of her, time and time again, and came home safely every time. I’m glad that others will get the opportunity to get almost as close to her as I did, and that doing so will make the stories of what she, and her sisters, accomplished a little more real.

But hopefully it’s OK to be a little sad that the oldest and most-flown of the extant orbiters will never orbit again.

Godspeed, Discovery, and thank you.

Discovery's flag, never to fly again.

A Shuttle-Launch First — Seconds!


Back in November, I spent about a week in Florida. Waiting for the space shuttle Discovery to not launch on its STS-133 mission.

Going down there for a launch and coming back without seeing it was not a first for me.

This week will be.

I’m going back down this week with Heather and the boys to try once again to watch the launch of STS-133.

I’ve been down to Florida for shuttle launches six times now.

I’ve seen three launches.

I’ve seen three scrubs.

I’ve never been back down to watch one launch that I also watched scrub. This week will be my first time making a second attempt to watch a particular mission launch. Obviously, I’m hoping this trip is more successful than the last.

We hadn’t been planning on trying again for this mission, so soon after our last trip down, but Heather was offered the opportunity to go down to the launch on a work trip, so all four of us are driving down there.

I’m really hoping it goes this time, so that she and the boys get to see it. As we finished up the book, Caden in particular took a real interest in the shuttle, and started talking recently about wanting to go try to see one again. (“Even if we don’t go to Disney this time,” he offered.) On the plus side, it will probably mean more to him this time than it would have in November. And, of course, Heather, having now co-authored a book about the shuttle, really out to see one launch.

So, wish us luck. Should be an interesting trip.

Scrubbed Again


I’d gotten spoiled.

For a while there, I felt like I was cursed. There was the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launch that I missed seeing live by just one day, after extending my trip to spend another morning on the causeway. There was the STS-114 landing that took place in California while I was on-site in Florida. There was the STS-121 launch that I got rained on and sunburned both, only to see it on television after finally making it back home in a rental car after the car of the friends I rode with broke down. There were those days that I spent in Florida waiting for STS-122 to not launch, costing me a unique chance to land in a plane on the shuttle runway in the process.

And then, last year, it all changed. STS-125 launched on the scheduled day (well, ignoring over a year of delays before the launch date I went down for). Ares I-X had its share of triboelectrification delays, but still was kind enough to leave the ground while I was present for it. Earlier this year, both STS-130 and -131 launched, not without snags, but without too many snags.

I was golden.

I was hoping maybe things had changed. Maybe recent changes had worked out some kinks, and the whole space launch process was smoother. After all, I couldn’t go down for STS-132 earlier this year because of my brother’s graduation, but it, also, launched in an agreeably timely fashion.

But, as they say, all good things must come to an end.

The original Monday launch date was scrubbed before we left town, but it was just pushed back to Tuesday, so we went ahead and got in the car for Florida. Tuesday turned into Thursday, and bad weather turned Thursday into Friday. Friday came, and became the end of the month.

Which, you know, is fine. It’s less frustrating to me to miss a launch by weeks, or months, than a day or two. There’s nothing worse than knowing that if you had just waited a little bit longer, you would have seen it. I spent longer in Florida on this trip than I have any other, but there was no way we were going to make it until NET Nov. 30.

We also never had to actually go out and wait on the Causeway for the scrub this time, all of the problems were kind enough to occur well in advance this time, freeing up time for other Florida activities, which I may end up writing more about later.

In fact, with the exception of a very brief trip to the Kennedy Visitors Center and a thwarted effort to see the shuttle on the pad at night, the closest I got to seeing the shuttle on this trip was the LEGO set in the picture above.

But, as I’ve said before, you know, this is the way it works. This past week was just as much a part of the spaceflight experience as my last four trips. I hate that the people I was traveling with got the bad side versus the good side of that experience, though it could have been worse; Disney was a much more agreeable place to spend a non-launch than hours at the riverside.

And, frankly, knowing that this will be the last time she’ll leave Earth, I can’t blame Discovery for not wanting the adventure to be ending.

Maybe if they’d offer her STS-135, she’ll be more agreeable.

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