Monday, July 11, 2011

Off we went into the wild, weird yonder

Of course I didn't take this picture. Duh.
Here's what happened on my trip to Titusville, Florida, to witness the launch of space shuttle Atlantis, the final flight for NASA's space program...

FRIDAY NIGHT - For obvious reasons, everything has to be just right to fire one of these things off. That means scheduling is tricky. Mechanical issues and weather conditions can result in anything from a delay to a complete scrub of the mission. That also means scheduling travel for those attending the launches as observers is tricky as well. Lots of checking up on weather and traffic reports. I decided that I could best contribute to the group I was tagging along with (there were five of us) by resigning myself to the role of happy passenger. No suggestions for better ways to do things, no questioning, no unsolicited input of any kind other than 100% positive feedback. If you knew some of the personalities involved, you'd know this was a wise choice beyond my natural inclination to be lazy. As a result, I didn't complain or question when our scheduled leave time went from 10:00AM Friday to around noon to around 4:30PM to around 9:00PM to just about midnight. The rationale behind it was explained to me, something to do with steps NASA would or would not be taking at certain times that could or could not be undone which would indicate the probability of a favorable launch. It was all way above my head (naturally) and I was already in "go with the flow" mode so I didn't worry about it. Eventually, we did leave around midnight and after stopping for coffee at Starbucks on the way out of Tampa and then again for gas at a 7-Eleven in Plant City, we were on our way, heading out with about a 30% chance of success, an estimate that never really changed.

VERY EARLY SATURDAY MORNING - We pulled into Titusville around 3:00AM. After a debate on the likelihood of being towed, we chose to bypass the $30 parking lot (and the seemingly insincere platitude of "good luck" offered by the attendant) and parked somewhat illegally. We unloaded our stuff and headed for Space View Park, which was the designated area for the "STS-135 Tweetup". Thousands of people were already there and we found spots wedged in among tents and other people in lounge chairs. We weren't welcomed warmly ("People need to get strollers through here", was how we were greeted by someone who herself was blocking a sidewalk) it was very hot, muggy and smelly. It reminded me of one of those disaster movies where a comet strikes the earth or something and nomadic survivors huddle together in makeshift campsites. I also encountered an old man in the restroom who had a mini meltdown when I let people cut in front of me to use the urinals while I waited for the toilet. I don't know what his problem was but sorry, dude; unless I have no other choice, I don't do urinals (three words: 1. public 2. restroom 3. splashback). This was not promising, as Uncomfortable + Jerks = Pretty Miserable. This was as close as I came to expressing displeasure but I didn't say anything. One of the people in our group proposed taking a walk and I guess nobody was thrilled with being wedged in there for the next eight hours because we all offered to come along.
About a quarter of a mile away, we found ourselves halfway to the apex of the Max Brewer Memorial Bridge. There we were treated to beautiful, cool, gentle breeze, an obstructed view of the launchpad in the distance and friendly welcomes from the relatively small handful of people. It took about five seconds of looking at each other and almost no spoken words to decide to go get our stuff and relocate. We found a spot on the pedestrian walkway part of the bridge which is separated from vehicle traffic by a 3'5" concrete retaining wall. It was perfect, like box seats.

LATER SATURDAY MORNING - We were hungry so two of us offered to make a food run to the Burger King at the bottom of the bridge. When we got there, we found a line of AT LEAST 60 people waiting just to get inside. That's when it really hit me how many friggin' people must have been there. Right next door was a Papa John's that had opened early for the occasion. It was busy too but they said it was only about a 20 minute wait for a pizza, which isn't much different than any other time, so we ordered a large sausage and cheese. Mmm, breakfast!
On the way back up the bridge, it was apparent people were really starting to show up in serious numbers. What had been still a relatively wide-open bridge was now packed halfway across. Cops needed full lights and sirens to get through. All four vehicle lanes plus our pedestrian walkway/box seats would be completely packed with people eventually.

LATER STILL SATURDAY MORNING - The rest of the morning was spent obsessively checking smartphones for updates which seemed to be changing every five minutes, and stupidity (see photos below). "Weather is green for is red for launch". It was cloudy but there were streaks of sunlight. Breezy but no powerful gusts of wind. Speculation whether it would or wouldn't happen was 50/50 and it seemed like it could come down to a coin flip. Shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach later joked that it came down to that. However, around 11:20AM, all reports indicated that things looked good and the launch would happen on schedule. There was some sort of communication glitch among people near us as it was reported that the countdown stopped. But people gathered at the foot of the bridge started a synchronized "10...9...8..." countdown and it went off on their cue (we found out later that the countdown did stop and there was a three minute delay but that news apparently took three minutes to reach us for some reason).

THE LAUNCH ITSELF - Wow, I don't know. Breathtaking? Amazing? Incredible? That seems woefully inadequate. It's just the kind of spectacle that is difficult to express in mere words after you experience it in person.
Immediately after, it got ridiculously, uncomfortably hot. We also never got a single drop of rain while we were out there, even though it was raining almost everywhere else in Florida and it stormed most of the way home. It's kind of weird how things lined up so perfectly just long enough for that to happen and then it was over.

THE RIDE HOME - Sucked. We drove for hours without ever exceeding 6 MPH, just because of sheer volume of traffic. We knew that would be the case, but still. The less said about that the better. Instead, enjoy these photos!
This is what our immediate surroundings looked like, some time just after dawn.

Here's the bridge when we headed out for pizza...

And this is what it looked like as we headed back!

This pelican's indifference (he's facing away from the launch) along with speculation about the waters being infested with dolphin-eating bears was a source of great amusement to us (well, two of us...not so much the other three). We dubbed him Carl, the sea crow. Why? Because staying up all night outdoors makes you goofy, that's why.

This jamoke showed up around 10AM, hawking collectible coins. I resisted and he said "I'm not selling them". After I said yes, they were very nice, he said "Only $1!" I guess I don't know what "not selling" means.

Here's one of the coins. I didn't buy it, one of my companions did. He got it for .85. Shrewd! If anybody knows what the significance of "104" is, please tell me. We couldn't figure it out.

I asked if I should take pictures of the launch itself and was told not to bother because without a serious camera with a telephoto lens, the pictures would come out crappy. Most of these people didn't get that memo.

This is the column of smoke that lingered after Atlantis disappeared into the clouds. You could still hear the rumble at this point. It looks like we're far away, doesn't it? Trust me, it sure didn't seem that way when it was happening.

This is a classic Florida roadside attraction that we came across on the way home, "Swampy, World's Largest Alligator". It has nothing to do with NASA or the shuttle launch but you can go inside! However, I was the only one who was interested and it was a huge concession to pull over and let me take a picture of it from the car. If I had gotten out, I have no doubt that I'd still be there.

1 comment:

RottenMom said...

I think that it's extremely awesomely cool that you got to witness this!

My favorite picture is the one with everyone all ready with their point and shoots.

And If you were traveling with my clan, we surely would have gone inside with you to visit "Swampy", we're all about the roadside attractions.