It has been a dream of mine to watch a manned rocket launch since I watched the Gemini and Apollo missions on TV as a kid, but it seemed like a dream that was destined to go unfulfilled. Not that I couldn't make it happen. It just seemed like there was never a good time, and they usually don't go off on time, and it's crowded, and on and on and all the reasons we use for putting off the things that we will someday wish we had done.
That's how it stayed until a few months ago, when I got back in touch with my old high school friend JD. After a distinguished military career, JD landed a high-ranking position at Kennedy Space Center, and he invited us down to watch a launch of the space shuttle. Realizing that this was likely to be my last chance to see a big launch, I jumped at the opportunity. Endeavour was scheduled to lift off Super Bowl Sunday at 4:35 am, carrying the Tranquility module (and the Colbert treadmill) to the International Space Station. We decided to drive down instead of trying to fly, mostly for the flexibility, and the ability to carry whatever the hell we wanted without paying for a bunch of checked bags. It's about a twelve hour drive from here, not much further than a trip to see the in-laws.
JD called a few days before the trip to talk over the plans, and invited us to a KSC reception on Friday night. Knowing that it would be close on timing, we left the house early, dressed in our party clothes. We would have made it on time, too. I realized the flaw in our plan when we passed the sign that said "Now Entering Eastern Time Zone." We were going to lose an hour that was not accounted for in our schedule. Luckily, my car is capable of going faster than it had been going. We were almost back on track when we hit a ginormous traffic jam in Gainesville, involving three separate accidents on I-95.
Anyway, we got to the reception about a half an hour late, but didn't really miss anything. We located JD, met his wife and her cousins, and proceeded to shake off some of the road dust. Within about 15 minutes I had a chance to see JD standing at the front of the room with the Director of KSC and the Director of NASA talking about what a great asset he was. This was when I first realized that my friend might not be just another NASA employee. About 10:00 we realized we had been up for about twenty hours in a row, made our apologies and drove the half hour to our hotel.
After a decent night's sleep, we had a quick breakfast and made the hour drive to the KSC Visitor's Center. We had a couple of hours to kill before the VIP* briefing, so we toured the exhibits and rode the shuttle launch simulator, which I have to admit is pretty cool. JD delivered the first third of the briefing, and I was impressed. His particular blend of drive, leadership, humor and love of people seem to fit his new life perfectly, and spending time with him was at least as much fun for me as the rest of the trip. While JD was always (mostly) serious and dedicated about doing something real with his life, he was not really a star at much of anything in our high school, and I think some people there would be surprised that he has matured into a proverbial "leader of men." It was fun to see him work a room of 400 people with the skill of a politician, but without the lying. I could definitely see a political career in his future. I know I would vote for him.
We had a few minutes after the briefing before they closed the launchpad, so we hopped into JD's car and hauled ass out to see the shuttle. While we weren't exactly standing on the gantry, we were much closer than I had imagined we would get. I could clearly see "Endeavour" printed on the side of the orbiter. We only had about five minutes to gawk and take pictures, but it was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. We drove past one of the big crawlers on the way out to the pad, which was also pretty cool.
Knowing that sleep would be hard to come by from here on out, we drove back to the hotel for a nap. We slept for about an hour, and spent two more lying in bed wishing we were sleeping. We had a light dinner and headed back to KSC about 10 pm.
The next few hours were the hardest of the trip. We had been standing or walking for much of the day, and it was getting to be past our bedtime. We wandered the Visitor's Center, watched the IMAX movie, shopped for warmer clothes and looked for a place to sit until it was time to queue for the bus. We stood in line for about an hour for the relatively quick trip to the Saturn V Center at Banana Creek, where we would watch the launch. We arrived with about two hours to kill until launch time.
I wish I had taken more pictures of the Saturn V building, though I don't think any shot I could take would do justice to the scale of the building, or the giant rocket suspended overhead. I primarily would like pictures of all the exhausted people wandering around or slumped over or lying on any available surface, so I could have some way to remember how tired we were. It looked like an airport after everyone has been snowed in for a couple of days.
The weather was so clear that I wished for my telescope when we first got to Banana Creek, but within an hour a low overcast had moved in and the launch was in jeopardy. We listened as launch control changed the launch status from 80% go, to 60%, to 30%, to red, back to green, back to red, green and red again. They scrubbed the launch a little after 4:20 am. By that time we were just happy to be able to get back on the bus for a short nap.
The drive back to the hotel was a nightmare. It was fairly easy to get out of the VIP parking lot, and we got away from KSC with no real trouble. About a mile and a half later we hit a solid line of cars that was barely moving. We spent almost two hours traversing the next two miles, and it was nearing 8:00 when we pulled into the parking lot of our hotel. Trying to stay awake, alert and engaged on the drive home reminded me of my worst days on the road, and it took all the will I could muster not to drift off to sleep.
This turned out to be the low point of the trip, and things steadily improved from this point. But thinking of that Sunday morning drive has made me too tired to continue. I will have to take up the second half of the trip later.
*There are around 4000 VIP tickets for a given shuttle launch. The experience is definitely superior to what you can buy tickets for on the Internet, but it's not exactly a night in the Lincoln bedroom.