I was, again, stuck in Florida with a shuttle that wouldn’t launch. So, again, after several days, the Sabra decided to come down and join me. And, again, she proved to be the good-luck charm we needed, and that little Shuttle launched.
Since she was in FL anyway, we decided to take a vacation, and we stayed in Orlando for a week. It was nice; we went to Disney World, which was pretty fun. We only had one day there, so we just went to Magic Kingdom. Then we spent the next morning listing to the benefits of buying a timeshare. We were strong and didn’t buy, but we DID get a free breakfast and 2 one-day passes to both Universal Orlando parks, so I guess we did OK.
I started back at work this morning, and I noticed that even though schools are all officially back in session, the Metro was surprisingly empty. Then I got off the train at Gallery Place/Chinatown to transfer. As I walked down the platform, there was a mass onrush of people walking the opposite direction. Someone had opened the floodgates and people were pouring out and over the walkway. It occurred to me that this is exactly how salmon feel as they fight their way up against the currents of the raging rivers of the Pacific Northwest. Where once I felt like drone in the subway, today, I better appreciated the plight of the salmon. Unfortunately for me, I did not spawn at the end of this river of people; however, fortunately, I did not die as do the fierce salmon who make the difficult trek to perpetuate their species.
I merely went to work.
After being pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to return to Florida to see the launch, I found out Friday that I was going to be able to go. Of course, I already had my tickets to go to St. Louis to see RC. I was supposed to leave there on Monday anyway, so I figured that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I left at 10 am instead of 1 pm. Fortunately, I was right, and RC wasn’t too mad at me.
RC and I had a very nice time while I was out there visiting, and we ate in some very nice restaurants. We went to BARcelona, a tapas restaurant. It wasn’t too bad, but the party next to us (we were actually in a makeshift table, so we were sticking out into the aisle) were very loud and rowdy, but they were somewhat friendly and having a good time. The food wasn’t too bad, but they forgot one of our dishes, so we had to wait a while. I think the tapas places in DC are better. We also went to Duff’s for brunch. That was quite yummy, and it’s always nice to have ancient lesbians wait on you. (Returning home from there was when we passed the S & M Groceries.) We went for a long drive to who-knows-where (which is when we stopped at the gas station with the very possessive bathroom). At some point we turned around and headed home (which is when we passed the best billboard I have ever seen). We ate dinner at Phil's Bar B Que in Eureka. It was pretty good, but the joint was filthy (but then again, I guess that that is how greasy spoons got their name, right?).
The next morning we had to be up early because I had received a message on Saturday when I landed that the travel people at work had not received my signed orders, so there was a possibility that I wouldn’t have my tickets in time. They told me to call at 7:30 eastern time, so I was up at 6 central time. Anyway, as you can imagine, it all turned out OK. Since we were up early anyway, we went for breakfast at First Watch, which is RC’s favorite place for brunch.
I got there, found my co-worker, got some Chick-fil-A, and rented the car. We headed straight for KSC. The rest of the day was spent talking about logistics, and it was then that I discovered that I needed to be in the same place I was last week. I needed to redirect folks from the Causeway to Banana Creek, as everyone got an upgrade. Actually, I already knew that part; what I didn’t know was that I needed to be there at 5:30 in the friggin’ morning! Oh, well, it actually wasn’t all that bad. After the meeting, several folks went out to dinner, but I knew that I needed to be up early so I headed back to the hotel (yes, you guessed it, I was stuck at the stinkin’ Best Western again), got some carry-out, and then walked up and down the beach for about an hour and a half. I was truly amazed at thhe number of fat people on the beach. The number of those people who were wearing bikinis was rather desturbing. But the saddest part was that so many of them were children. I mean, I have no one to blame but myself for being fat, but these little girls and boys can't fend for themselves. My mom says that that is akin to child abuse. Anyway, after walking along the beach for a good long time, it was time for me to go to bed.
I didn’t actually get to sleep until after midnight. The damn walls in that hotel were paper thin, and the kids above me were playing tag or something…running around and stomping their little piggie feet. I finally went up there and begged them to stop running around. I tried to be nice and acknowledge that it wasn’t really their fault, it was that dump of a hotel we were staying in.
Anyway, I made it to my designated spot on time and less cranky than I expected. It was pitch black, and it was absolutely beautiful…expect for the fucking mosquitoes who were enjoying the smorgasbord that was me and the two women I was with. Finally, as the sun rose two cops came by to hang out with us, and one of them had bug spray that seemed to do the trick.
Finally, the time came for me to part ways with the women and the cops, and I drove over to the place where I was to meet everyone and get on the bus to head out to Banana Creek. I arrived in time to find out that some folks were stuck in traffic, and that I was the person assigned to wait for them and drive them out to the viewing area. Fortunately, they weren’t that far away, and they were all very friendly. Once they arrived, we piled into my car and drove out to Banana Creek and found a nice place to park and got to the bleachers with no problem.
Did I mention that it was like Africa hot out that day?
As the clock ticked ever closer to launch time, the bleachers began filling in earnest. Laura Bush, and her brother-in-law, Jeb, walked right past me and sat down about 5 seats and 1 row up from me. OK, so I didn’t vote for her husband, but it’s still pretty cool to be a stone’s throw (sorry, I should probably use a better term than that) away from the First Lady of the United States.
Finally, after 2½ years in the making, the shuttle lifted off as gracefully and majestically as ever: “3... 2... 1... and liftoff of Space Shuttle Discovery... beginning America's new journey to the moon, Mars and beyond... and the vehicle has cleared the tower.” You could feel the electricity in the air as the crowd cheered, hooted, applauded, and otherwise expressed elation over seeing the shuttle clear the gantry. Now, I have never been to a Shuttle launch before, but I have to believe that there was something different about the crowd’s reaction to this launch than to many of the previous ones. This launch was the culmination of years of work, it represented NASA’s return to space exploration. I realize that I really didn’t have anything to do with getting that thing off the ground, but damn if for that moment I wasn’t really proud to work for NASA.
I can’t even begin to describe what it was like to be there. You hear the voice over the loudspeaker tell you that the Shuttle has lifted off, but you don’t actually see anything. Then all of the sudden you notice that the Shuttle is slowly rising, and you watch it creep up ever so slowly until it finally clears the gantry. By the time you realize that it’s moving, it’s really moving and just like that it goes from creeping to speeding. Then, like a distant storm, you hear a rumble of thunder, and you can actually see the sound waves disturbing the water on the creak. Suddenly the sound has caught up to you and it’s a deafening roar in your ears. It’s like standing in the middle of a million firecrackers as they all explode simultaneously.
I took a bunch of pictures of the launch; click here to see the best one.
I just flew in from Florida and boy are my arms tired! Thank you, I’ll be here all night. Don’t forget to tip your waitress.
Seriously, though, I was among the few in my office who were privileged to go down to the Kennedy Space Center to see the Return to Flight launch of Space Shuttle Discovery. Sadly, as you surely know, the launch got scrubbed because of some sensor. Everyone says that it’s better that we are being very careful, but I’m sure that the astronauts just want to get back to what it is that they are trained for.
It wasn’t a completely wasted trip, though. I got to eat at some really good places, and got to do some fun stuff. We had breakfast twice at the Simply Delicious Cafe and Bakery. It was very yummy, and I’m quite sure that RC would have loved it. It very much screamed of her: they served their orange juice in margarita glasses. We also had BBQ, but it wasn’t the greatest. I walked for about an hour on the beach. That was very nice. And I was in Cocoa Beach for a few days (days, I might mention, which may have otherwise found me in my office).
My hotel was awful! I had the distinct misfortune to stay at the Best Western. To say that it sucked would be saying nice things about it. When we got there, we checked in, and I headed to my room to drop off my luggage. I walked into the room, and before I could even let go of my luggage, I turned around and walked out. It smelled so unbelievably foul. It was a smoking room, and it clearly had been used as such for hundreds of years. I headed across the street to the lobby (yes, the lobby was in its own building across the street). The guy behind the counter told me that there was nothing he could do because the hotel was fully booked. I told him that there was no way that I would be able to stay in the room. He told me that I had to speak with the guy from NASA who booked the room. So, I called said person, and he assured me that he would fix the problem as soon as he got there. He was at the Best Western within minutes, and pitched such a fit that they finally caved in and switched me with someone who hadn’t yet registered. My new room wasn’t too much better, but at least it didn’t reek as strongly. The day before we flew out, I went over to the lobby to use the computer and check in at the airline's website. I printed out my boarding pass and headed back to my room. When I got there, I swiped my keycard and nothing happened. I tried again, and still nothing. Finally, after the third time, I started back to the lobby to tell them that something was wrong with my keycard, when some guy and his kid got out of a truck and said, “hey, is that your stuff sprawled on the bed?” Um, yea. Those stupid fucks resold my room before I checked out of it. The other guy and his kid lucked out because the hotel gave them a free upgrade to an oceanfront room. What did I get? I got a new keycard.
The first evening we split up. Several of the gang went out for Cuban; I wanted to go to the receptions, so I opted out (it turned out they never made it). The SEAL Leader, the Virginian, and I went to crash some receptions. We headed over to the Double tree (interestingly enough it was the same Double tree I stayed at last year when I came down to see the MESSENGER launch. See busy weekend part 3 for that story). We couldn’t get into one because the bouncers asked us for our invitations, and we had none, so we pretended that we were just looking around and slowly backed towards the door. We went around the corner to the bar and there we found another party that we were allowed to attend. They had pretty good food: shrimp, chicken, roast beef, sushi, and really, really good cheese cake. Oh, yeah, and it was an open bar.
Later that night the SEAL Leader and I drove onto base and got as close as we could to Discovery, but like the dumb ass that I am, I didn’t bring my camera down at all. Even still, it’s a memory I will have for a long time. We drove up as close as we could get with our Headquarters badges. The guard house was on a road that looked directly toward the pad, and as we approached the checkpoint, there it was, lit up like daylight. It was such an amazing sight to see. I know that I have little (in fact nothing really) to do directly with getting the Shuttle into orbit, but damn if it didn’t bring a tear of pride to my eye to see that bright white Shuttle mated to the Halloween-Orange External Tank, the two white pencil-like boosters on either side. It was so cool. It looked just like a postcard except that it was bigger, more real, and more awe inspiring.
The next morning, 4 of us headed to Grouper’s Corner to assist visitors getting onto busses that would ferry them out to the Causeway. Two of us stayed behind to be at the point of embarkation, and the other two headed out to the Causeway to be on the other end. It was really, friggin’ hot; fortunately, we had water in the van.
At some point very close to the launch, 2 guys came up to us livid. Apparently one was the son of a Congressman, and he had gotten the run-around about where he was supposed to be. He believed that he was supposed to be at the Banana Creek site (where all the VIPs were), but the list showed him as being at the Causeway. Several days ago, I was instructed to call all of the Congressmen who had RSVPed that they were planning on going to the launch and checking to see if they were having family coming separately. The point of these calls was to give them info on how we would get all the Members together with their families. As such, I felt that whether or not Junior’s father was in attendance, he should in fact be at the Banana Creek site. I tried to call several people, but signal strength is quite farkackt down there, so of course I couldn’t get anyone and had to leave messages. Finally, I was able to get through to someone who told me to get them to the area where the busses were picking up folks to go to Banana Creek. So, Junior, his friend, and I jumped into the van and headed out to the other site. Fortunately, Junior and his buddy had done this drive twice before, so they were able to direct me. Rather effortlessly we made it, and I ignored a guard who told me I couldn’t park in that lot. As the time was growing short, and there would have been no way to get back to Grouper’s Corner before the last bus headed out to the Causeway, I was told to just get on the bus that was heading out to Banana Creek. The bus pulled out, and turned onto the main road. As soon as the bus righted itself, it had to stop at the checkpoint. One of the ladies on the bus showed the guard our pass, and at that moment we got the call that the launch was scrubbed, so the driver just made a right back into the parking lot. Junior and his buddy wanted to get back on the road, so I drove them back to Grouper’s Corner (where they had left their car).
The rest of the night was pretty uneventful; we sat around and told war stories about what happened and what would likely happen in the coming days. I was told that there was little chance of me getting to go back whenever the launch finally happens. I figured as much, and that is fine with me. Even though it didn’t launch, it was still pretty cool to be here for the excitement. I’m sure that if I’m still at NASA, I will have other opportunities to see a shuttle launch.
Today I am awakened by the clang, clang, clang of church bells (a setting on my clock-radio), but I was already on the way to rousing. I am very excited. I have never been on official travel before. I have never seen Orlando before. I have never flown in a non-commercial jet before. I have never seen Kennedy Space Center before. I have never seen a launch before. I am not very excited, I am over excited, and so I have woken up earlier than I need. It is 7 am, and I do not need to be at the airport until 2:45 pm. But I have lots to do.
It is 10:00 am and I’m showered, shaved, packed, and have eaten breakfast. I’m bored now, but it’s too early to go to the airport. So, I watch TV, talk on the phone, and finally make lunch. At 1:00, I leave for the airport, and of course, there are delays on the Red Line. I should have left earlier, but I make it to the airport, and the correct hanger, with about 10 minutes to spare.
We board the Cessna, an 8 passenger private plane that looks like a miniature Air Force One. It has the blue stripe along the fuselage and in big, bold letter is written “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” We are in the air and the land is falling away before you even realize it. It is amazing how fast these little planes go.
As we approach Kennedy Space Center, I can see out the cockpit window, and the runway looms ahead. I am told that it is the one that the Space Shuttle uses when it lands at Cape Canaveral. Even before I began working at NASA, I was a rabid, zealous, one might even say passionate, fan of the space program, and there is something awe-inspiring about landing where the Space Shuttle lands. We taxi off the runway and stop right next to the MDD, the Shuttle Mate-Demate Device, a machine that lifts the Shuttle off the 747 when it is ferried back to KSC. That, too, is amazing to see.
After getting to the hotel, checking in, and dumping our luggage, we are off to Grills Seafood Deck & Tiki Bar—-a local restaurant-—for what we are told is one of the best places to eat in Cape Canaveral...if this is true, I can’t imagine what the rest of the restaurants in the Cape are like. I had blackened mahi-mahi. Most of the group had drinks before dinner, and about 3 bottles of wine were consumed throughout dinner. It will be a long night, so I choose water. A couple was our hosts for dinner, and they drove us in their cars to the restaurant. A word to the wise: if you have big, smelly dogs who shed all over your car, vacuum and fumigate before inviting guests to sit in it. I had to breathe through my mouth, and I still have dog hair on my black shirt.
After dinner, we return to the hotel to freshen up, and then it’s back to KSC to see where the MESSENGER mission will be observed, meet the director and his deputy, and listen to a lecture by the PI for the MESSENGER. All of this was very interesting, and the lecture was fascinating. I have forgotten how exhilarating it is to hear someone speak so passionately about their love (this is somewhat common in academia, but extremely rare in government. Think about it, how many people are impassioned by pushing paper and thinking up acronyms?). There is a nice spread of food laid out in the lobby, and I have some meatballs, a chicken wing, several stalks of celery, and copious, myriad, one might even say lots, of white chocolate macadamia nut cookies.
Finally, around 1 am, we head out to the observation field. We are about 1 and half miles from the launch site, and next to the media with their cameras and cool vans. It’s not a very nice night with Alex off the coast of the Carolinas, and while we can see the Delta rocket lit up on the launch pad, the sky is overcast and foreboding. Needless to say, at T –4 minutes (and 2 minutes remaining in the built-in 10 minute hold) the launch is scrubbed due to anvil clouds (I am no meteorologist, but it seems dreadful, and I have images of Thor banging his hammer on these clouds). We are all upset and shuffle dejectedly onto the bus to return (again) to the hotel. I hit the pillow just before 3 am.
I am up at 8:30 and head upstairs to breakfast. Then it’s off to the lobby to wait for the rest of the group. I see the Leader in the lobby, and he tells me that we have permission from the office to stay tonight and try to see the launch again. As the folks come down to the lobby he tells them this and, to my surprise, there isn’t as much excitement as I had anticipated. The other guy from the office tries to contact the pilots to see if they can stay (for if they can’t, there’s no need to even discuss the possibility). In the meantime, we head back to KSC for our tour of the facility.
We drive all over the Center. We get up close and personal with Atlantis, and are able to watch technicians work on her as they double-check all of the black tiles that cover the belly of the Shuttle. We go to the huge 540 ft. building where they mount the Shuttle to the External Tanks. We see the original Launch Control for the Apollo missions (this is also where they filmed the Mission Control scenes from Apollo 13). We get right on the launch pad where they launch the Space Shuttle. Then we have lunch, and make our way back to the plane.
We all get on board, stow our bags, and strap ourselves in. The pilots taxi us out to the runway, and as they begin final preparations for take-off, they get a call from the tower that the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is closed and there is about an hour and a half delay. We aren’t leaving now until about 6:30 pm.
I take advantage of this time to get a lecture from one of the pilots on all the controls of the cockpit. I am as ecstatic as a kid in a candy store. I don’t get any of it, but it’s so cool. Because I’m in the cockpit, I’m not privy to the conversation happening in the cabin, but apparently the folks have changed their mind, and figure if we are going to be delayed so much, we might as well push on through and try to watch the launch again.
The pilots return to their hotel to get some more rest, and we return to ours to squat. We do not get rooms, and after relaxing in the lobby for about an hour, we head off to a movie. We see The Village. It’s not bad. Then we are off to the Outback. Finally, at about 12:30 am, the bus returns again to pick us up and we head out to the site where we were last night to watch the launch again.
Tonight it’s a clear sky. We can see stars. We can see the craters on the moon through binoculars. We sit and talk to the pilots. We sit and talk to KSC employees. We sit and talk to some media folk. Finally, the moment has come for Mission Control to make a decision. We hear over the speakers, “Green across the board, MESSENGER launch is a go.” We head up the hill and watch as the lights around us are shut off. The voice on the speakers says, “T minus 5, 4, 3, 2.”
Night becomes day as the boosters (6 of the 9) spark into life. The light from a mile and a half is effulgent, lustrous, one might even say bright. It burns the retina. The air is still, and the plume hangs in the sky like a white, puffy worm. As the rocket ascends higher and higher, we hear, softly at first, and then louder and louder, the sound traveling across the expanse. As the sound waves hit us, I can feel the fabric in my shirt and pants ripple with the force. Before you can even blink (or the burn on the retina fades), the rocket is almost out of sight. The fire fades as the fuel is spent. Just as the flame disappears, the other 3 boosters ignite and we can just see the original 6 disconnect from the rocket. Then all is night again, and the sky is lit by the moon’s shine alone. The plume still hangs in air, defying both gravity and wind.
After a moment, we board our bus for the last time. We all nap during the 20 minute ride back to the runway, and finally we are aboard the plane again. The wheels go up about 3:10 am. Almost everyone sleeps. I, however, stand just behind the pilots, and enjoy the view out the cockpit window. I see a lightning storm below us off our starboard side. We see a bright light in the sky that I insist is a UFO; the Leader informs us it is more likely the International Space Station, which can be visible from the ground (but we are 40,000 ft up, so it is more visible). Finally, we see the Woodrow Wilson Bridge that connects Maryland to Virginia. The wheels are already down, and we are about to touch down. Alas, the pilot tells me I need to go sit down now. But what an exciting opportunity (one few but pilots get to witness). We arrive just about 5 in the morning, and by the time I say good-bye, get the bus to the Metro, get to Gallary-Place/Chinatown (only to discover that the Red Line, which has been running for 15 minutes, has a 15 minute delay), get to my stop, walk home, get undressed and crawl into bed, it’s 6:30 am.
I set the alarm for 11:30 am and try not to think about having to go to the office later this afternoon as my head falls to my fluffy, comfortable, waiting pillow.