It wasn't about the launch. It was about the adventure of traveling with my Dad 600 miles to meet my brother Richard and be a part of something bigger than we were. The launch itself is over in 3 minutes. At that point all that is left is a vapor trail snaking through a crystal blue sky like the string of a kite that just broke, releasing the kite to fly off into the unknown.
I've always been a rocket geek...ever since 8th grade when I was president of the model rocket club at school. It allowed me to place orders for all the other kids to Estes, the model rocket catalog company, and thus getting the freebies that were offered when one placed an order above a certain amount. I loved building rockets, but more...I loved launching them. I was about to turn 9 years old when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. It was the summer of 69 that we were living in Raleigh at the Palms apartments. Actually, because we were transplants from England, we were living at the pool of the Palms apartments that summer. I can remember steak dinners with baked potato's and salad, learning how to swim with our busty babysitter, flooding afternoon showers, my blue Schwinn stingray bike that I won in a Chiquita banana sweepstakes, humid heat, and the Apollo missions.
By the time we moved back to west Raleigh in 1974, my brother and I were building a lot of rockets and flying them out off of Reedy Creek road where the RDRC (Raleigh Durham Remote Control Aircraft Club) had a paved runway. I liked to think I could shoot one of the RC planes down with a rocket, but I never did. They often crashed on their own though which was fun in itself. My rockets crashed too, but we would build them back. I never had the patience to finish the large Saturn 1B that I bought. I was too interested in getting out to the range and flying them. But fly them I did. I've launched many a rocket over the years and enjoyed taking my daughter out on several occasions to fly them. She even built her own rocket as part of a YMCA princess tribe project. It flew great.
30 years have gone by and I have always wanted to see the shuttle blast off from it's pad. I had never made it over to Cape Kennedy, although we have visited Orlando for the ritual Disney vacation several times. Last year I tried to grab Dad and go down for a launch but we couldn't make it work. The opportunity was beginning to be lost.
Then I realized that there would be few opportunities to see the shuttle go as the program is winding up this year after 30 years. I told Dad it was now or never and got on the phone to my brother Richard to see if he could finagle some press credentials. He couldn't make that happen, but he was able to get tickets to see the launch from the causeway. The trip was on!
The area was for sale, but gave a great view of the bridge, although not as good as I had hoped. It was enough however to satisfy my curiosity and then only hoped that the gates hadn't been padlocked while we were taking photos.
Of course the other thing missing were the beautiful bodies one can imagine at Spring break there on Daytona, but unfortunately the beach was crowded with Europeans and retired folks...not exactly what we had in mind. Well, after asking one group of younger girls to pose with Dad... subsequently laughed at and turned down, we decided it was time to go. Obviously I am out of practice, but a bigger event awaited us further down the coast.
Part of the experience was talking to all the people that we were surrounded by, from the cute little boy and his mom, to the couple of English guys that found themselves in Florida during the launch window.
Dad had Richard's old radio and listened into the NASA commentary which although was piped in to the causeway, you could barely understand it. The radio definitely helped. Richard, ever the journalist, blogged back to CNN where he works, only to be usurped by the local CNN correspondent who not only was actually working, but also had a very thorough knowledge of the space program.
I was ready with my loaned 400mm lens that was kindly provided by a friend who had it sitting in his companies closet. They had switched to Canon, and I was still using Nikon, so it was a perfect fit.
I also decided to use my iPhone to make a video, so I jury rigged it to a tripod and hoped the battery wouldn't die. The lens didn't include a hood, so I used a piece of construction paper and gaffers tape. Worked wonders.
After hours of waiting, it actually looked like the shuttle would launch. There is always the possibility that the mission would be scrubbed for the day and on many occasions that is exactly what has happened. All the thousands of people would have to decide whether to pay for a bus ticket back out to the causeway, or settle for viewing from the visitors center. I really didn't want to do all this waiting again, so I was very glad to see the main engines ignite at T-minus 6 secs. It was about to be a beautiful sight.
Our position on the causeway was 6.8 miles from the launch pad. It was an unobstructed view across the water. The green channel marker in the photograph shows the middle of the waterway. On Google Earth, you can actually see the dredged channels.
In this photo, the shuttles main engines just ignited at T-minus 6 seconds. I was very surprised to see the image time stamp as being 2:20:07. I don't imagine it was ever set that accurately, but it was pretty spot on. It allowed me to see from my metadata exactly how far in the flight the shuttle had progressed.
This was the last journey of Space shuttle Atlantis, whose first of 30 missions started in 1985.
This photograph was at T+33 seconds. The engineer in me wants to know at what angle I was shooting at this point to not only figure out the altitude, but also the speed it was traveling.
2 minutes into the flight the solid rocket boosters are ejected and it's traveling at several thousand miles per hour. I was amazed at how I was able to maintain a track using my lens and still get pictures a minute into the flight. At two minutes, the shuttle was a tiny dot, but the tanks are clearly visible falling back to earth.
Once the smoke cleared, we all loaded back onto our assigned buses where we headed back to the visitor center. A great parking spot allowed us to exit fairly quickly, and although it took us almost an hour to get back to the hotel, we were ready for the fish and chips and beer we found at an Irish pub. It was a good way to cap a wonderful weekend.
I learned much about his work...his decisions about coming to the states in the 60's...the jobs that he didn't get but wanted... the women that showed interest in him... and the woman he loves. He forgets names and is getting a little confused at times, but he still knows how to do things...he's still an engineer. I won't soon forget this trip. I'm already thinking about another one for next year. Hmmm. How about a trip across country? Now there's a thought.