Monday, May 17, 2010

Pilgrimage to Shuttle Atlantis Launch!

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!

When you drive 1200 miles with someone over a long weekend, you tend to find out a lot about that person. I don't think Dad was quite used to my impulsive nature. He doesn't have an impulsive bone in his body. First stop was Savannah where we decided to spend the night. A trip down to the water front took us near the wonderful suspension bridge (check that...cable stay bridge...I should have known that educated as a Civil Engineer )that straddles the river between the historic district and the ports. I had to find a better viewing point and since I had the keys, I turned in through some gates that were clearly marked with "No Trespassing" signs. Of course those signs are only for criminals and thieves, so I drove on in.

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.

Driving back over the bridge into the historic district found us a perfect parking spot near River front, with it's restaurants, antique cars, musicians, and boats. Dad talked of a visit there 20 years prior. He also talked of things that I never knew, like how shoe shops in England used to use continuous x-rays to evaluate your foot for proper sizing. It was banned eventually of course, but can you imagine the numbers of feet that were X-rayed?

Leaving Savannah, I thought we could hit the Cape by 2pm, so seeing that we were so close to Daytona Beach, thought it was a great spot to have lunch. $5.00 got us driving right out on the sand before Dad really knew what happened. I told him I wanted to get a picture of him with beautiful bikini clad women. He said..."Well, all-right!" In typical English tradition, we set up chairs behind the tailgate and munched on cheese and crackers...the only thing missing was a cup of tea.

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.

The last launch of the space shuttle Atlantis on Friday at 2:20pm was the main reason we were on the Space coast of Florida. We met my brother Richard who secured a room in Titusville right on the water, so in a worse case scenario we could stay there and watch the launch since it was only 12 miles from the pad. After waking up at 4:30am on launch day, we drove right into the Kennedy Space Center where we were able to do the Space Shuttle experience ride and the Hubble iMax movie, eat breakfast, and then wait several hours for the buses to take us out to the NASA causeway...along with about 40,000 other visitors. Getting off the bus, in true Richard form, he runs to a clear spot along the front of the rope line next to the water. Without an assistant, I had to carry all my stuff, and I must say sometimes I carry too much stuff. We found the spot after a quick cell call, and settled in for the long wait.

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.
At T+6 seconds the rocket emerged from the cloud of exhaust from the solid rocket boosters. The view was amazing. No sound had reached us yet, but the crowds enthusiasm was like a touchdown had been scored at a football game. At this point the 14.5 million pound shuttle was traveling at roughly 85 miles per hour. Try doing going from 0-85 mph in 6 seconds in your car! No...don't. A few seconds late the low rumble roar of the engines reached us, however it wasn't as loud as I thought it would be.

This was the last journey of Space shuttle Atlantis, whose first of 30 missions started in 1985.
I was torn between wanting to just watch the event and making photographs. I did a little of both, but did spend too much time looking through the view finder.
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.

Going to a launch was a once in a lifetime kind of event...but what I will cherish more was the time I spent with my Dad and brother, sharing in something that we all know that we may not get another opportunity to do.

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.

The next morning, Dad and I left for Raleigh, while Richard left for Atlanta. Those hours in the car were perhaps the best times I've spent with my Dad. I drove most of the time, so he was just along for the ride, but he enjoyed my spontaneousness, even if it meant a ride in the elevator to the top of the sombrero at South of the Border.

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.

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