The first time Fabien came home with me to Florida (October 2004) we spent two days visiting the Kennedy Space Center. He was enthralled by the exhibits on space exploration (I was too) and stayed until he had absorbed every last detail. I subsequently joined the mailing list for NASA events and have hoped for a launch coinciding with one of our visits for many years. It just happens that 2011 is the last year for Space Shuttle missions- the program is too expensive, the shuttle, though magnificent is now outdated and the maintenance of the space station will be managed with NASA representatives from Russia, a seemingly ironic move.
My wishes came true, and the beginning of our Florida road trip coincided with the last launch of Discovery. At thsi point it was impossible to get tickets to the launch pad viewing at Kennedy Space Center, so we went to Titusville, one of the best places to see and hear the launch. The launch was scheduled for the afternoon, but our day began early as the park we were camping in was a good 2 hour drive from the coast. We stopped off at the Florida Natural orange juice factory on the way, to see how the make orange juice (we are in the middle of the orange season right now and pass trucks loaded with oranges everyday.)
Bad luck, we were stuck in traffic crossing Orlando, which slowed to stop and go as we approached the highway taking us to the Space Coast. Normally it’s a 45 minute drive, but in the first 45 minutes, we only managed to cover about 5 miles. At 1:30 in the afternoon, we started worrying that we wouldn’t make the launch. A shame to come all this way and to miss it stuck in traffic. Luckily the traffic thinned out the farther we got out of Orlando and we made it to Titusville around 2:30. The traffic was crazy as you moved towards the shore and people we’re charging $20 bucks to park in their yards. We parked in the Dollar General parking lot (about a 20 minute walk from the shore), had our picnic lunch sitting on the back of the car and ventured down to the shore to stake out our places with 1000s of other people. We perched ourselves on two rocks under the mangrove trees with our feet dangling close enough to be splashed by water when the waves rolled in. We had an unobstructed view of the launch pad across the bay and with the help of binoculars could make out the shuttle which was positioned away from us. We brought along our radio to listen to the launch news, broadcast by a local radio station.
The last minutes as they were announcing the final checks were tense… there was a computer screen malfunction at the one of the tracking stations and until moments before the actually lift-off, we weren’t sure if it was “go” or “no go.” They corrected the problem in the nick of time (I can imagine the Hollywood version of this moment as the computer screen came on and crowds cheered.) We saw the cloud of white smoke (which I actually think is water for cooling) go off first and then saw the shuttle lift off with flames coming from below. We didn’t hear the sound until more than a minute after lift off. Everyone was cheering and I had butterflies watching her go up. A truly amazing experience.
By the way, there are two more shuttle launches before the program ends, the Endeavour on April 19th and Atlantis on June 28th.