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


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.

She’s Always A Woman To Me


(Supposedly, three-quarters of a million people are going to drive down to Florida this week to try to watch the Atlantis make the final launch of the space shuttle program. This post is dedicated to them.)

Quite a while back, a child asked me why I referred to the space shuttle as “her.”

I explained that it was a long-standing naval and aviation tradition since time immemorial. I posited that early naval and air crews were predominantly male, and that because they loved their vessels, they referred to them as if they were women.

A couple of months ago, though, I watched on television as Endeavour launched on her final mission, not terribly long after I had gone down to Florida for a few days to wait for her to fly. And I had some further thoughts on the space shuttle.

She’s complicated and complex and temperamental, and she doesn’t do anything until she’s good and ready. But when she does, she does it like no one else.

She doesn’t care how much time you have to spend waiting for her. But when you do, she’s always worth it.

She’s fragile and delicate and requires incredible amounts of care. And she’s stronger and more powerful than anything you’ve seen.

She’s the very definition of high maintenance. And she’s beautiful and graceful enough to bring a tear to your eye.

She burns hot enough to melt lead, and goes from that to ice cold in minutes. But she always protects those in her care.

There’s nothing like her in the world. And she’s always a woman to me.

Just Go!!


launch of discovery on sts-133

The final launch of space shuttle Discovery

You have two more chances.

The space shuttle Discovery is in space right now. She’ll be landing soon. And she’ll never fly again.

If you haven’t seen Discovery launch already, you never will.

The space shuttle Endeavour has one launch left. Currently, it’s scheduled for April 19.

If you haven’t seen Endeavour launch, and don’t go to the STS-134 mission launch, you’ll never see her, either.

The space shuttle Atlantis also has one launch left. Currently, it’s scheduled for June 28.

If you haven’t seen Atlantis launch, and don’t go to the STS-135 mission launch, you’ll never see her, either.

But, most importantly, if you’ve never seen a space shuttle launch, you only have two chances left.

And then, you’ve missed out forever.

To put in in a larger perspective, if you miss out on watching one of those two launches, you’ve not only missed out on seeing a space shuttle launch, you’ve most likely missed out on watching an American crewed space launch for years.

And when astronauts start launching from America again, they’ll fly on vehicles much less powerful than the shuttle. If you miss out on seeing one of the next two shuttle launches, you’ve missed out on seeing a vehicle that powerful launch for even more years.

And when America builds a new launch vehicle as powerful as the shuttle again, the plan is that it won’t carry astronauts. So if you miss out on seeing one of the next two shuttle launches, you’ve missed out on seeing a vehicle that powerful launch with astronauts onboard for … well … who knows? Very possibly your lifetime.

This is history.

And you have two chances left to see it.

Go.

Just go.

Whatever opposition is in your head right now, ask yourself, really, does it matter?

But ask it this way — twenty years from now, which am I going to want to talk about, going to see a shuttle launch, or whatever I did instead?

Maybe you’ll have to skimp financially in other areas to afford it. But, twenty years from now, are you more likely to tell people about seeing the shuttle, or the extra few times you ate at McDonald’s?

Maybe you’ll have to use vacation time you’d planned for something else. But, twenty years from now, which trip are you more likely to talk about?

Maybe you’re busy. What are you doing those days that you’re going to talk about twenty years later?

The launch schedule may change, but you can check the current planned dates here.

I’ve had so many people say they’re jealous of the launches that I’ve seen — four shuttles, two unmanned rockets.

But I’ve had no real advantage. I’ve paid for my trips, and I’ve taken time off. Seeing those six launches involved making nine trips to Florida.

I’ve seen those launches for one reason, and one reason only.

I went.

You have two chances left.

Go.

Just go.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,131 other followers