I think we left our story after the launch of Endeavour was scrubbed on Super Bowl Sunday morning, and the wife and I had suffered the drive from Hell back to our hotel. My head hit the pillow about 8:00 am, and I was aware of nothing until almost noon. We had scheduled an extra day in our trip because of the shuttle's 70% scrub rate, so we had one more chance to see a launch. The next attempt was scheduled for 4:15 Monday morning. Because of weather and other events at Cape Canaveral, we knew this would be the last attempt for a while.
Once we were convinced that we were not going to sleep anymore, we got ready and went to meet an old colleague of the wife's who works at Patrick AFB. After a pleasant visit, and a "just what the doctor ordered" breakfast at Breakfast at Lilly's in Satellite Beach, we decided we might be able to squeeze in a one hour nap before the Super Bowl. In what we have come to think of as typical JD style, my friend had invited us to watch the game at his home, despite the fact that he didn't really know us, they had a house full of company, and they were both going to have to be up all night for the second night in a row. Their hospitality was over the top (including a place for another quick nap after the game), we had a great time, and of course the game was awesome. I also had the unusual experience of watching a Super Bowl sober, knowing that we had another long night ahead.
Many of the actual VIP's had gone home after the previous night's scrub, so JD and his wife had a chance to give us a different experience than we had the night before. We had the great good fortune of riding with JD, whose pre-launch ritual is to ride around the base talking to people and watching some of the other prelaunch rituals. Our first stop was what he calls the Astro-parade, where the astronauts get in their big Airstream van and ride to the launch pad. There is something cool and sort of "Forest Gumpish" about witnessing things in person that we have seen all our lives on TV. The astronaut van was cool like that.
The next stop was the airstrip, where we watched a couple of other astronauts take off in a T-38 on the pre-launch weather flight. This is also where the shuttles that have to be piggy-backed in get unstacked from the top of their 747 carrier, so we got to see the tower where that happens.
After riding around some more until we were well and truly disoriented, and had talked to approximately every person standing watch somewhere at Kennedy Space Center, we returned to the Saturn V center to await the next attempt. The weather had been cloudy all day, and we were not optimistic. Fortunately, our naps were holding up, so we were not nearly so tired as the night before.
About an hour before launch, the weather started to clear. It was not crystal clear by launch time, but apparently clear enough. After listening to the traditional roll call of department heads and "go" responses, we heard the Director say, "You are go to launch Endeavour." When the message was relayed to the crew, you could hear the excitement in their voices. A spontaneous cheer went up from the crowd at Banana Creek, which I'm sure was echoed at all the other viewing sites.
The launch itself was magical. The shuttle was behind the launch platform from our perspective, so the first thing we saw was a tremendous brightness when the main engines started. It got even brighter when the solid rocket boosters lit. They tell me it's brighter than the sun, and I don't doubt it. The shuttle came into view about a second later. If you hold your fingers at arm's length about an inch or so apart, that's the apparent size of the shuttle from three miles away. It was small, but clearly visible. I can't describe the sight of that little thing riding an enormous column of flame. It's just one of those things you have to see to understand. The sound hit us about fifteen seconds later, and just kept getting louder. I found I was quietly repeating the word "go" under my breath.
A shuttle launch doesn't even begin to compete with the best that nature can do, but it is impressive, especially if you engage your brain a little. When I heard, "Endeavour is now traveling 6000 miles per hour, altitude 65 miles and 200 miles downrange," it was really hard to reconcile with the fact that I could still clearly see the glow from the main engines. It really was a special moment, and one I'm glad I got to experience.
JD got us through the crowd and back to his home in no time, and we were in our hotel by 5:30. After a few hours sleep, we started the long drive home, exhausted but happy. The wife commented on the drive home that she couldn't think of a better way to spend a weekend, or better people to spend it with. I couldn't agree more.