DIY LEGO Rocket Garden


(Updated June 22 with Ares I-X.)
(Updated July 4 with scale converter and STS mod.)
(Updated July 7 with Sputnik R-7 and more STS info.)
(Updated July 15 with Vostok and Voskhod.)
(Updated July 28 with Soyuz and Long March 2F.)

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It started with the Saturn V, combined with a love of Skylab.

Like many people, I bought the original LEGO Saturn V kit. And that was going to be the end of it.

But then I happened to see that there were instructions online to convert it into a LEGO Skylab Saturn V. And, obviously, I need to have a LEGO Skylab Saturn V. So I bought a second LEGO Saturn V set. And that was going to be the end of it.

But then I built my two Saturn Vs. And because I replaced the top part of the second Saturn V with the Skylab mod, I had a Saturn V third-stage-and-Apollo stack left over. And the site where I got the instructions for modifying the Saturn V to Skylab configuration also had instructions on how to build a first stage for that S-IVB-and-Apollo stack to make a Saturn IB. So I did. And by that point, I knew it wasn’t going to be the end of it.

And that’s how I ended up with a LEGO rocket garden, all built to the same 1:110 scale as the LEGO Saturn V.

When I’ve posted pictures of my LEGO rocket garden, I frequently get questions about how I built it, so I thought I’d put together a “guide” based on my experiences. So here’s pretty much all I know about building a LEGO rocket garden.

Basically, all you need are pieces and instructions. (If you’re cleverer than I, you can do it without instructions, of course; but I’m writing for this for folks who, like me, aren’t cleverer than me.)

I buy my pieces at Bricklink. There are other places you can buy them, including Brickowl. Different people use different sites, so while I prefer Bricklink, you may prefer something else. Bricklink is a portal to individual vendors; it’s not so much a store as a storefront for sellers. When you make a purchase, you’ll frequently be placing multiple orders split between different stores that have different parts you need. Particularly with the bigger builds, the parts can get pricy over time, so I’ll spread my piece purchases out. Bricklink lets you set up multiple want lists, so I’ll have want lists set up for multiple projects at once. When I buy pieces I need for the thing I’m working on, I’ll add a few bucks extra for a future project, so it doesn’t hit all at once.

I haven’t done this yet personally, but someone more experienced than I read this post and pointed out you can also buy pieces directly from LEGO. Their shop doesn’t have the variety you can find on Bricklink, but it can be good if you need a large quantities of specific pieces.

Here’s where I found the instructions for the different builds, along with any hints I have from building them:

V2 – The instructions for this one are here. The site they’re on is a Google Drive with instructions for an incredibly wide collection of space vehicles. I was late finding it, so haven’t used it much. I thought I was going to be clever and make mine narrower because I didn’t like the way it narrows, but it looked bad. In the process, though, I replaced the nose with a simple 2x2x3 cone, and I do like that mode. You’ll need to add, I think three more 3024 pieces to go between the 4733 and the cone.

(Quick update, since I mentioned the Google Drive here. Another experienced builder, reading this, pointed me toward this Gitlab site with a very comprehensive collection of designs, which I had not seen before but will be revisiting. Update update: The creator of bricksin.space rightfully reminded me it’s a good resource. I have downloaded his books, but haven’t had a chance to use them yet.)

Juno – The instructions for this one are here. LEGO Ideas is a good, but inconsistent place to find instructions. The site’s primary purpose is for designers to post their ideas for people to vote on them so that they might become official sets. A few, but far from all, designers will share the instructions for their builds. The site will do nothing to help you find them, and in fact hides old ideas after they’ve expired. The designer, Eiffleman, includes decal or wrap designs here; I prefer to stick to just bricks. Also included here are the instructions for versions of the next three builds I did. I didn’t do the Juno until I’d done the other three, so I used instructions from elsewhere. (As a result, my Juno and Redstone fins don’t match, even though they’re the same in real life.)

Mercury Redstone – Instructions are here. In fact, it’s from a source where I got the designs for a good chunk of the collection. I mentioned Bricklink as a place to buy bricks; it also has a “Studio” section where you can find or share designs. A benefit to finding designs in the Gallery at Bricklink is that it’s very simple from there to create Wanted Lists for the parts and order them. There’s a designer in the gallery named legorockets who is based in my hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, and whose collection of designs includes my Mercury Redstone, Mercury Atlas, Gemini Titan and Falcon 9. This (or the Eiffleman version mentioned above) is a good one to start with; it and the Juno are probably the easiest and cheapest, and of the two the Mercury Redstone is arguably more iconic.

Mercury Atlas – I believe these are the instructions I used for this one. All all note here is the importance of paying attention to version numbers. legorockets has at least four versions of the Mercury Redstone, and they’re all still on the site. At least once I realized I’d ordered pieces using a different design version than the instructions I was using.

Gemini Titan – I think this is the version of the instructions I used for this one. Side note here: Remember at the beginning where I said all you need to create your own rocket garden is pieces and instructions, and you don’t actually need the instructions if you’re creative. Well, technically, you don’t actually need the pieces, either. There’s a branch of the hobby where, rather than building physical models, you just design them virtually, using LEGO Digital Designer or Studio. Designing virtually lets you figure out what you need before you start ordering parts, and creating a digital rocket garden has two advantages over a physical one – it’s a whole lot cheaper, and you can do things virtually you can’t do in real life. A model that would collapse under its own weight in real life works beautifully virtually. And, in the case of this Gemini Titan, you can use a piece that doesn’t exist in real life – a white barrel piece, shown at the base of the Gemini capsule. This same piece, or lack thereof, also shows up in my shuttle model at the base of the boosters. Some people will paint the pieces to the color they need; I find limiting yourself to the limits of LEGO is part of the charm of the hobby.

Saturn V – I built the official LEGO kit. Unfortunately, it’s discontinued now. You can still find them for sale on places like eBay, but be prepared to spend a lot more than the original cost. (It looks like some folks have reverse-engineered the set so you can order the parts and build it yourself; this may be one.)

Skylab Saturn V – I found the instructions here (design by Eiffleman, who did the Juno above) to modify the official LEGO Saturn V kit to the Skylab configuration. Unfortunately, that requires an official LEGO Saturn V kit, and, as noted above, it’s discontinued. If you don’t want to buy one second-hand, I noticed in working on this that legorockets has a Bricklink Gallery design for the full-up Skylab Saturn V, engines to shroud. It looks like you can probably source the parts cheaper than buying a secondhand Saturn V.

Saturn IB – I found the instructions here. As mentioned above, this was a mod using the pieces leftover from the Saturn V kit when I built the Skylab Saturn V, so it has the same issue with needing the discontinued set. If you want to build it from scratch, here are instructions from legorockets. I’ll throw in another side note here – Most of the bigger rockets have a lot of internal structure that you don’t see. Generally, when you get the part lists, they’ll have a color assigned to the pieces for that structure. If the pieces isn’t going to be visible, Bricklink will let you change the color to “(Not Applicable)” so that you can order the piece in the cheapest color, rather than paying extra to match a color that doesn’t matter. Many designers make this easy by picking an obviously weird color, like blue cylinders on a rocket that’s all black and white.

Space Shuttle – Since I originally posted this, KingsKnight has created an improved version; the instructions for which are on sale at Rebrickable for $15. You can probably still find the old instructions for free, but I endorse buying the new ones both because KingsKnight has put a lot of time into this design and its worth the money, and because I’m pretty sure the new design can save you more than $15 in parts versus the old one.)

I found the instructions here for this design by KingsKnight. I used a part list from Bricklink Gallery to create an easy Wanted List. You can also find the instructions on the Google Drive mentioned in the V2 section, but I figured this would be a good time to mention the Bricks In Space group on Facebook, which is a great resource for general information. There’s also an r/legorockets subreddit on Reddit.  Since I built built my Saturns using official kits, this was the biggest project for which I had to source all the pieces. I started buying parts several projects ahead, and broke it into chunks – I did the Orbiter first, and then got serious about the boosters and then got serious about the ET. As designed, it’s a phenomenally expensive build because of some rare dark orange parts for the external tank. Some people buy other colors and paint them; some go with a “close enough” orange. I went with white, the way the tank looked for the first two launches, which not only matches the way the tank looks on the cover of my shuttle history book, Bold They Rise, but saved me maybe a couple of hundred dollars. Bricklink’s Wanted List makes it easy to filter the parts for a particular color (i.e. dark orange) and then bulk change them to a different color (i.e. white)


Update: At the suggestion of KingsKnight, I made a slight mod to my orbiter, replacing the front end of the wings with the distinctive black appearance of Columbia, making it more true to the STS-1 or -2 white external tank. (It’s a pretty simple change, and much more simple if you make it was your building instead of after you’re finished.)
Update Update: I recently came across a post where someone gave instructions for modding KingsKnight’s build to the exact appearance of any orbiter for *any shuttle launch.*

Falcon 9 – Instructions found here. Another one by legorockets. Side note here: Relying on other people’s instructions and parts lists, and letting Bricklink’s automated system find sellers for you, it’s easy to sink money into things you don’t care about. Case in point: My rocket garden centers around the history of human spaceflight, so I wanted to build the Crew Dragon configuration of Falcon 9. This design includes that, so I went with it. When I was buying the parts, I noticed that one order had a small number of parts and a big price tag. Upon inspecting it, I found it was because one of the fairing configurations used a rare, expensive part. I have no interest in building a fairing for the rocket, so I removed the part from my order, and saved about $18. My Atlas V had flames for the Starliner that were like $4 each. I’m displaying it as a full-up stack, so you’d never see the flames. Gone. This was the first build where I really noticed that; if I’d paid more attention, I could have saved even more. There were other fairing parts I could have struck, and this design has legs that are interchangeable for either a launch pad or drone ship configuration; I only needed the former. (I recently had met the designer online behind this version that has folding legs, but no Dragon, if you’d prefer to go that way.)

Atlas V – Instructions are here. This is the only one so far that I’ve paid for instructions for; it was the only one I could find that was proper Saturn V scale and included Starliner. They were on Rebrickable, where people can sell designs. I paid just over two bucks for the instructions, and it was totally worth it. I’ll take free instructions where they’re offered, of course, but people put real time and effort into coming up with these, and I don’t begrudge them at all making some money off that. A bit of jargon – Bricklink has a Gallery; Rebrickable has “MOCs.” MOCs? My Own Creations, as opposed to official LEGO designs. (Back when I was a kid, making your own creations was what you did with LEGOs, before they started becoming more like model kits. That said, I’m not really building my own creations now, so I can’t say anything.) A MOC is just a custom design; it’s still a MOC even if it’s someone else’s creation that you’re just building. More jargon – you’ll occasionally see AFOL. If you do, it’s Adult Fan of LEGO. Now you know.

Ares I-X – Design files are on the Google Drive site here, and on Facebook Bricks in Space. The design for the Ares I is by Sebastian Schoen, aka Moppe Stone. While the Studio files were available, instructions weren’t included, so I contacted the creator through the Bricks in Space FB group. I modified it to Ares I-X since I attended that launch and work with some team members; the mod mainly involved replacing orange pieces with white like with the Shuttle; but it also meant I could simplify things a little at the bottom of the upper stage.

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Sputnik, Vostok, Voskhod and Soyuz – Instructions are here. LEGO Ideas designer tech_niek submitted a Soyuz design for consideration to become a real set (which wasn’t chosen), and as a bonus included versions for an entire fleet of Soviet vehicles using the same approach – the launchers for Sputnik, Vostok and Voskhod, in addition to Soyuz. (The post also has instructions to mod them to the whitish appearance at launch caused by ice collecting on the rocket.) The upside is, it’s a great all-in-one approach to the highlights of Soviet launcher history, (Though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hear the siren call of building N1 and Buran someday, designs for both of which exist.) The downside is, it’s a design optimized for being created as an official set, versus sourcing parts on your own, particularly if you’re doing the entire fleet. The Sputnik R-7 uses six of this part; the others use even more. Currently, no Bricklink seller in the US has more than five in stock, which means shipping is going to drive the price up; and the Soyuz uses an orange version that is even more rare. (The design also leaves a gap between the boosters and the core that is very visible at some angles, FWIW.)

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Long March 2F – Instructions are here. Like the Ares I-X, this one is by Sebastian Schön. If I recall correctly, if you use the .io file for ordering from Bricklink, you’ll need to reduce the part counts in half – his instructions show the elements assembled and in separate close-ups, so the file includes parts for both versions. This is a good intermediate build, since the .io file doesn’t include step-by-step instructions, but it’s relatively easy to figure out, particularly if you’ve built a few rockets before this.

Space Stations and Other Things

In addition to my 1:110-scale rocket garden, I’ve also built a couple of builds to accompany the official LEGO Space Station kit, which is roughly 1:220 scale, about half the Saturn V. I started with a 1:220 Skylab found in the Facebook Bricks in Space files; it was fascinating to see the two stations in scale with each other. The visiting vehicles that come with the Space Station kit are out of scale with the ISS, and people have designed replacements for those. The space shuttle, in particular, struck me as bad, so I used a design from those Files for a properly-scaled 1:220 Space Shuttle. Like the Long March 2F, I didn’t have step-by-step instructions; I had exterior pictures and a list of parts and had to figure out how it went together from there, but this one was more challenging than the Long March was. It took a while, but it was rewarding. (As an added bonus, it meant that I could create in LEGO the planned-but-never-flown Shuttle-Skylab rendezvous mission.)

I’ve done one true “MOC” – my own creation – the upper stage of NASA’s new SLS rocket deploying a CubeSat. It’s not as accurate to scale or as elegant, but I did it, and it was a good first step. If you’re interested in creating your own design to Saturn V or ISS (or any other scale), here’s a useful tool for converting real-world measurements to LEGO measurements.

I’ll update this as I add to the rocket garden (I’ve already started the next rocket). If you have any questions, leave a comment or find me on Twitter. Or, better yet, look up the Facebook or Reddit groups and join the conversation!

I hope this helps, and happy building!

Godspeed, John Young


I was born about a week after the end of the Apollo era. John Young and Bob Crippen were the first US astronauts to fly in my lifetime, and by then I was old enough to be excited about it. To me, they were like real-life Captain Kirks. It was not until decades later that I realized he had walked also on the moon, but even then it impressed me less than flying that first space shuttle into the heavens.

I still have what may well be the first space writing I ever did, a science fiction story from over 35 years ago about John Young in the Year 1999. I’ve written more than a few words about him since, but he inspired me from the beginning.
 
He had a reputation for being … strong-willed. To the best of my recollection, I only saw him in person once, and my two memories of that occasion are him talking, as he did frequently, about how we needed to explore space because single-planet species don’t survive, and him cussing at my then-wife.
 
When I first began working on Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, 1972-1986, a fellow astronaut contacted Young about talking to me for the book. He politely declined; he was working on his own book, Forever Young, at the time, and understandably wanted to save his stories for that.
 
Nonetheless, through the words of others, he looms large over the book; you couldn’t write a history of the early shuttle without the presence of John Young being strongly felt. One of my favorite stories in the book is from my Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story co-author Owen Garriott; recounting Young landing the shuttle on their STS-9 mission, discovering that the auxiliary power unit was on fire, and calmly noting “I’ve never seen it do that before.”
 
It was amazing to me that he was still an active duty astronaut when I first began working as a contractor at Marshall Space Flight Center, a very real connection between “my NASA” and the earliest days of the agency.
 
Young was one of a kind. He’s left this world six times before, but leaves it a little less colorful this time.
 
Godspeed, commander.
 
 
 

Worse Than Not Being Able to Fly


I was sharing this story with someone the other day, and realized that as many times as I’ve told it, I’ve never actually written it.  Now I have.

launch of sts-133

The first time I ever drove down to Florida to watch a shuttle launch was STS-121 in July 2006. It was three and a half years since we’d lost Columbia. STS-114 had flown a year earlier, but the fleet was re-grounded after foam shedding issues were seen again on that flight. Now, the shuttle was ready to launch again, for the first time in a year and the second since January 2003.

The launch was scheduled for Saturday, July 1. I was on a pier on the river in Titusville, and it was packed. There were maybe that many people there for STS-135, the last shuttle flight, but only maybe. The shuttle was flying again, and people were excited.

The shuttle didn’t fly that day. The weather looked perfect, to which my sunburn would attest. But despite looking perfect, when the launch window opened, it wasn’t. The crowd went home.

We went back the next day. The weather looked the exact opposite of perfect, but as long as there was a chance, we were going to stick around. We were rare in that decision; only  a tiny fraction of the crowd from Saturday returned on Sunday. The crew boarded the vehicle, and began preparing for launch. They got to the point where they were ready to close the hatch. They called back to Mission Control. Before we close the hatch, is there really any chance we’re flying today?

Pause.

No, came the answer finally. The astronauts exited the shuttle.

There was no launch opportunity Monday. I had to drive home. I watched the launch on my television in my living room on the Fourth of July.

Fast forward four years and change. I’ve been back several times. I’ve seen launches now. I’ve seen more scrubs, too. The shuttle program is winding down, and I head down to Florida to watch STS-133, the pre-penultimate flight. The chances of successfully seeing a launch increase the longer one was willing to spend in Florida, and this time I had a week reserved to wait.

It wasn’t enough. After multiple delays for multiple reasons, it reached a point where not only was Discovery not launching that week, she wasn’t launching that year. Home again.

Fast forward another three months. Discovery is on the pad again. I’d been to multiple scrubs and multiple launches, but I’d never made the trip back down to try again to see a launch I’d seen scrubbed. This, for me, was a first.

On the day of launch, I was supporting some education activities at the KARS Park campground. We watched from a pier on the river there as well. Lacking the launch-feed speakers we’d had on some of my previous launches, news came from social media and rumors.

Launch drew close. And then it wasn’t drawing close anymore. There was a hold, at minutes before launch. We knew they were holding, and we new it had something to do with range safety. A monitor wasn’t working. The launch opportunity was nearing an end, rapidly. It looked bad.

On the orbiter, the crew continued to prepare for launch. From what they were hearing, months after their last week of scrubs, it was unlikely they were going to space that day. To make it worse, the issue was with range safety — the team responsible for, among other things, being ready to destroy the orbiter during launch if it looked like it could endanger the public. You’re not going to space, and the reason you’re not going to is because we couldn’t kill you if we wanted to.

Were I the crew, I’d be happy to suggest a compromise where range safety just decides to forego being able to blow us up, and let us go. But instead, they’re on the orbiter, going through the motions of preparing for a launch they’re hearing is next to impossible.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I heard it came down to seconds. If it had taken seconds longer to resolve the issue, they would have stayed on the ground. Again.  But it didn’t. They left Earth on a column of fire and steam on their way to the International Space Station.

Two months later, they were at Marshall Space Flight Center for their post-mission visit. They did their briefing in Morris Auditorium, and when they opened it up for questions, I had to ask — what was it like sitting in the crew cabin of the orbiter, going through the steps of preparing for a launch that almost certainly wasn’t coming? Was it discouraging or frustrating?

In a word, the answer was no. They hadn’t been scrubbed, and as long as there was a chance to fly, they were going to do their part to make it happen.

As Alvin Drew put it, the worst thing wouldn’t be to be ready and not be able to go. The worst thing would be to able to go, and not be ready.

Not bad advice, for more than just space shuttles.

Mars Rocket Yadda Yadda Horses’ Butts


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According to an old story that’s circulated the internet for years, the dimensions of the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters were prescribed by the width of a horse’s rear end.

The story goes from Roman chariots that were made wide enough to accommodate the back end of two war horses to British roads that were built for those chariots and ended up with ruts where their wheels were to Engish wagons that were built wide enough to fit those ruts to trains that were built from the jigs and toolings for those wagon and thus U.S. railroads were all built to the width of a Roman chariot and thus based on the width of two horse’s butts. And then it takes it a step farther to the fact that the shuttle solid rocket boosters were designed to be transported via rail and thus had to fit through a railway tunnel determined by the width of a  train and thus, yadda yadda, horses.

The particulars of the story get some stuff wrong. U.S. railways didn’t originally have a standard gauge, and were built to a variety of widths before being standardized, so there was no particular magic number that they had to be. On the other hand, it’s also worth noting that the original railroad cars were horse-drawn, so there was a more direct connection between the widths of train tracks and horses, so there is some basic truth to the story, even if the particulars aren’t exactly right.

I was thinking about this story again recently because of interesting fact I learned about the Space Launch System rocket I’m honored to support.

The core stage of SLS is 27.6 feet in diameter, because it’s designed to have the same diameter as the space shuttle’s external tank in order to more effectively take advantage of existing manufacturing and launch facilities. We were talking about that at work, and the question came up as to why the shuttle’s external tank had that diameter. We suspected at first it, in turn, had something to do with the facilities left over from the Saturn days, but weren’t able to find the answer anyway.

So I called someone I know who worked on the external tank, and asked him. And the answer has to do with the fact that the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters were to be mounted to the side of the external tank. Given the volatility of the fuels inside the tank, you wanted the attach points to be somewhere on the structure off of the fuel tanks inside it. The length of the solid rocket booster had already been established, and that determined what the length of the external tank would need to be to properly accommodate the attach points. The engineers knew what the volume of the tank had to be in order to hold enough fuel for launch, so once the length was established, the diameter was just a question of division.

Which means that the next time astronauts fly around the moon, they’ll be launched on a vehicle with a diameter determined loosely by the width of horses’ butts.

Another Draft Done


20121219-122830.jpgThis is one of those things that I included in the “when I start blogging again, I should blog about this” list, but I have no idea what I intended to say about it.

During the time I was offline, we finished another draft of the space shuttle book, “Bold They Rise,” that I’ve been working on for, what, six, seven years now? In fact, getting the book finished was one of the motivators for taking a break from blogging in the first place.

That said, there’s really not a whole lot to say about the latest milestone, other than the fact that writing a book can be a long, complicated process.

The latest revision mainly makes some stylistic changes to the book, changing the way it reads somewhat, and I think we all agree that it makes it much better. Next it goes to peer reviewers and the editorial board to see whether they concur, and then it comes back to us at least another time or two to make more revisions to make it publication-worthy. If all goes well, we’ll be looking at a spring 2014 publication date.

Still, even if the latest submission is just another milestone in a long string of them, a lot of work went into this one, and it was quite a relief to have the book off my plate for a little while.

Happy Birthday, John Glenn


In honor of John Glenn’s 90th birthday, a comic strip Lain, Jesse and I did many years ago before his return to space. For more comics, go here.


And in other space-related news:

— Here’s pretty awesome gallery of recent launches that a friend shared with me.

— I may write more about this later, but a flag flown on the first shuttle mission was left on the International Space Station by the last shuttle mission, and will be awarded to the first U.S. company to fly astronauts to the station. That’s pretty cool.

— Joy of Tech did a final undocking comic that’s not bad.

— Did you know astronauts can’t whistle on spacewalks? Learn something knew every day.

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.”

Florida Trip Photography


I haven’t had a chance to process things enough to do my big post-launch post, but here are some pictures I took (and one that was taken of me) during the trip. I didn’t take much launch photography, which I’ll get to in the bigger post, so most of these are from the Astronaut Walk of Fame.

I Was There


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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.