Already having tried and failed once, I was determined to catch a shuttle launch in person, before the last chance came and went. The first try came in the form of a cleverly scheduled layover in Orlando after a trip to PowerShift, an environmental conference in DC. As it turned out, the planning itself was clever, but was no match for the mysterious nature of the elusive shuttle launch. My planning turned out to be in vain, as the news came that the launch of Endeavour would be delayed a few weeks. Stuck in DC, with a flight to Orlando, I was forced to book a flight home through Orlando from Washington, DC. Fortunately I was able to find a flight that would only cost me $100 extra than a direct flight home, so I was content and booked it.
At the time, I didn’t realize that a ticket on paper could mean so much adventure to come. That is, I didn’t realize that the ticket I held, would turn out to be one of the worst flight experiences ever had by man. Aside from waking at 6am to reach Reagan National Airport in time, the flight to Orlando was pleasant. I sat next to a lovely woman looking forward to spending her vacation at Walt Disney World and the Magical World of Harry Potter. This is when the fun evaporated. I had one hour to reach my next flight.
I should have researched from which terminals my flights departed. With my last-minute ticket, I had to exit security and reenter. Normally, I think, this would have been an inconvenient fact of life, however TSA decided that day that I was a potential terrorist. Maybe because I was wearing a sweater in the humid 80˚ Florida springtime heat, or because I looked tired, or travelling alone, or maybe because I was behind some woman that the narcotics dog took an uncanny liking to… nevertheless, I was detained.
I got to stand in a clear detention cell, as a TSA agent asked me irritating questions and swabbed my hands for explosives. 10 wasted minutes slowly passed. I was released. Now I had to run, sprint, rather, to the terminal to catch my hell-bound flight to Dallas.
That I was sitting next to the most annoying, self-important woman in America ended up being only a mild discomfort on this flight. American Airlines, all too generously, made sure my discomfort level was more than adequate. The flight was diverted from Dallas, due to thunderstorms, finally landing in Austin after 2 hours of circling Dallas in a holding pattern when we were almost out of gas. The hours on the tarmac ticked by. Two hours passed in the heat of Texas before the doors were opened to allow some fresh air to circulate the cabin alleviating the passengers gasping for clean air. Although, even as the fresh breeze rolled in, the man behind me continued to hack up a lung.
7 hours after the scheduled arrival, I landed in Dallas. Greeted by no one. No AA agents in sight, I waited in the only available line for another hour to book a flight to my last-choice airport in the LA area, LAX. Thankfully, I was able to get a flight, which meant that I wouldn’t have to spend a night stuck in the Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport. I arrived home, finally. Tired and defeated. Although, I know this type of experience is all too common, it is hardly understated here.
NASA remained reluctant for several weeks to commit to a new launch date. As I waited, I began to prepare my car and bags for a quick departure to Kennedy Space Center. The date finally became set, one week prior to the launch, as the appropriate fixes and preparations were made to Endeavour for Monday, May 16, 2011. I left on the Thursday. I had four days to drive across country. Trying to motivate myself to leave, after the last delay was difficult. I didn’t know how long I would be gone. If NASA delayed the launch again, I would stay in Florida until the shuttle finally lifted off. I had to prepare myself for all scenarios.
I had driven across country many times before, however, never alone. My life for those few days became driving. I would wake up with the sun and drive. The first day I made it from Orange County to Deming, NM. I slept in a Walmart parking lot that night. Fearing for my life, it wasn’t the best night’s sleep, but I survived. Cars kept turning on and people congregating in the parking lot all night long. The experience, however, helped me to sleep in the car at rest stops and Walmarts later in this endeavor. Halfway through Texas, the next day, I desperately needed a shower after sweating through the heat. I stopped just outside of Houston at a 24 Hour Fitness to shower and get some much needed exercise. Most would never think to use their gym as a place to shower and freshen up on a road trip, but it worked out pretty well. Of course, I did have to buy a towel, shampoo and soap to shower. The drive continued through New Orleans, where I indulged on beignets, to Pensacola, FL. The launch was within reach with 1 day to go.
I arrived in Titusville, FL early Sunday afternoon. Expecting to see a large crowd of half a million observers camping out, I was surprised to find a ghost town, with one open grocery store and no open restaurants. I drove around, circling the Kennedy Space Center to find a spot closest to the shuttle with the best view. Ultimately I decided upon the first spot I found in Titusville. Across a bridge from the town, on a sandy island just before the entrance gates into the KSC. By the time I had explored all possible campsites, the sun was setting. I settled on a location off the side of the road, next to the swampy water with a clear view of the shuttle launchpad and completely surrounded by RVs filled with eager enthusiasts.
The bridge closed two hours before and after the launch, so everyone crowded in the day before..
I was one of the first to arrive at the site, despite it already being packed. Within a few hours of setting up my tent, several others came to scope out the area next to me. I picked a perfect site, the only flat hard-packed surface for 5 yards in any direction. I had pleasant conversations with a commercial airline pilot from Bakersfield, a retired engineer who used to work on the Apollo missions, and a man from Pennsylvania who pretended he knew everything about the launch. The pilot was the most interesting. Encouraging me to take flying lessons and take air-trips instead of road-trips across the country. I think my license plate and Berkeley stickers adorning my car drew a lot of attention, as I had traveled the farthest by car.
The night passed away slowly with a couple beers from the local grocery store, canned soup heated up by my camp stove, and experimentation with night photography. The shuttle launchpad provided a wonderful background, even at night. It was lit up as a beacon to the stars, illuminating the path to be taken in a few hours by the shuttle. I had to take occasional breaks to ward off neighbors who wished to park or camp too close. One man ran over a palm tree and nearly smashed my car as he piloted his SUV over thick bush to squeeze into a space next to me.
The lighted path skyward.
I awoke early that morning to the sound of thousands of people scattered around the KSC trying to find the best spot. Realizing that my prime spot would not last long if I didn’t stake it out, I set up my camera tripod on a rock on the water. People weren’t deterred. New arrivers didn’t hesitate to trample through my campsite, just feet from my tent and set up chairs, radios, and photography equipment. They were indifferent to me explaining that I had waited overnight. Regardless, I went down to my tripod at 8:50am to prepare for the launch now just 6 minutes away.
Competing radio broadcasts were echoing across the island. The countdown began at 8:56am. “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5. [LIFTOFF] 4, 3, 2,1” The signal delay was unexpected. The shuttle was in the air by the count of 1! I started snapping pictures as soon as the blinding orange fire lit up the sky with a brightness shining nearly as bright as the sun.
The long shadow cast by the shuttle's exhaust.
The shuttle remained in view for 20 seconds before disappearing beyond the low cloud cover. I was at first discouraged that I had driven 2,500 miles to see the shuttle for 20 seconds, however, as fellow onlookers began to point out, a shadow from the exhaust was being cast from high above on the low clouds. Otherworldly in appearance, the shadow lasted for many moments. I’m sure seeing the shuttle disappear into the horizon, many miles above the surface, could have possibly been more exciting. Yet, the exhaust’s shadow combined with the deep roar of the launch a full minute afterwards made my imagination wander, much like when looking at black and white photos. Seeing only the reflection makes imagine reality. I was inside the shuttle while watching the exhaust through the clouds and hearing the thunder as merely an echo from where the shuttle was minutes before.
As quickly as the launch began, the shadows faded, the thunder abated, and people evaporated. Titusville was again a ghost town. I was back on the road to Miami. But with one priceless dream completed.