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February, 2010:

When Nighttime Turns To Day

I’m 50 years old. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m not 25 anymore. :(

I really need to stop abusing myself this way.

I was supposed to go to the lake last weekend to help Ivan, John, David & Moe move Moe’s boat dock from where it was built in Steve’s yard to Moe’s lot on Pigeon Roost Creek. I was (and still am) getting over a cold. It was going to be very cold, very windy and miserable at the lake Saturday. I just knew I was going to end up with pneumonia out of the deal. But when your friend needs help you help… especially if you expect them to help YOU when you need it.

After work Friday I shot back to the house. Ivan was loading the gas grill into my truck and I was packing some last minute clothes. The phone rang. Apparently the guy who was going to transport the dock TO the lake and put it into the water decided he couldn’t do it Saturday morning. Plans scrubbed.

So I decided to do the next best thing. Why not fly to Florida to watch the very last (scheduled) Night Launch of a Space Shuttle. :)

So I checked the flights for Saturday and decided the best thing to do was fly to Jacksonville, FL – rent a car – drive to Titusville – watch the launch – drive back to Jacksonville and catch my 8AM flight back home in time to watch the Super Bowl. Sound like a plan?

I’ve seen two other shuttle launches in person. Both were night launches. Night launches are spectacular. Nighttime literally DOES turn to Day.

I used to go to Z-Hills, Florida (Zephyrhills) every year during Thanksgiving week. That was back in my skydiving days between 1989 and 2000.

We’d spend the week there jumping out of old DC-3s and Twin Otters.

One day a guy said he was going to drive to see the shuttle go up and a bunch of us went along for the ride. Zephyrhills, FL is north of Tampa… completely across the state from Titusville. The launch was one of the first since the resumption of shuttle missions after the Challenger Disaster. It was STS-33; a Department Of Defense mission. Because of the nature of it, its details are classified. So was the launch time. They gave us a two or three hour launch window but not a specific time. Oh well. Off to Titusville we went.

The date was November 22, 1989. We got to Titusville. The guy who was driving was from Florida and had done this before. He knew his way around and drove down the street along the Indian River and pulled to the side somewhere. We got out and walked through a reasonable group of people – not packed in or anything – to the waters edge and had a seat.

Looking across the water you could see Discovery sitting on the pad with all the lights shining on it. It wasn’t really too clear because after all it WAS 12 miles away! We all sat around and looked at each other. We all were wondering how long we were going to have to wait. Apparently not very long at all. Five minutes after the window opened they started a 20 minute countdown.

Twenty minutes later – at 7:23PM – The nighttime turned to day.

STS-33 on November 22, 1989 @ 7:23 PM EST

The thing I remember the most was the silence. The sky lit up… I looked up and down the Indian River shoreline and there were thousands of people clapping and smiling in the ‘sunlight’. But… the silence. We were still 12 miles away. I guess it should only take a second for sound to travel twelve miles… but it seemed like longer than that. Then came the rumble. Way low… and quiet at first. But it got louder… and louder… and LOUDER! Until you thought it couldn’t get any louder and then it got even LOUDER! I remember watching several fish jumping up out of the river in the reflection of the fire on the water. I guess they could feel the vibrations in the water just as I could feel them in my chest. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. I kept my eye on Discovery as long as I could. Until she was only a dim speck almost off the horizon. I didn’t want to look away because I knew I’d never find her again. Most people were leaving by now. Over the radio I heard the flight controller say that Discovery was just approaching the coast of Africa. Wow.

Two years later… again at Thanksgiving. There was another night launch. No one felt like driving to Titusville so we sat in the middle of the landing area at Pheonix/ZHills Skydiving Center… all of us. A bunch of skydivers wore out from a day of jumping. Sitting on the ground looking toward the East. With plenty of beer flowing it was quite a party. I wondered just how well I could see the shuttle launch from 112 miles away.

Well they had a radio on. As the countdown hit zero the skydivers (the ones who had watched many a launch from here) screamed out “LIGHTS!” and there was light.

The entire sky lit up in front of me. A bright orange. Just as if the sun were fixing to break the horizon during a beautiful summer sunrise.

It took a good 15 seconds and then there she was. Atlantis this time, with a trail of fire behind her moving up over the trees on the horizon. Another 30 seconds or so later and there was that rumble again. Not as loud as when I was standing 12 miles away but it was there. And again it got louder and louder.

The light didn’t last as long this time but the launch was still an amazing thing to see.

STS-44 was ALSO a Department of Defense mission though not a classified one. She launched on November 24, 1991 at 6:44PM.

A funny thing about the two launches I witnessed two years apart.

1. Both were DOD missions
2. On both Fredrick D. Gregory was the mission commander.
3. On both Story Musgrave was Mission Specialist-1.

That brings us all the way back to this past Saturday.

I went to the gym Saturday and worked out. Then I went back to the house, showered and packed a few things in a carry on and left for the airport. I jumped on a flight to Atlanta that left at 4:05PM. The flight was on one of our CRJ-900 aircraft. I didn’t get to sit in First Class but I got to sit in the first row of coach with no wall in front of me. Alone. It was just as nice. Plenty of leg room and no one was sitting next to me.

When I got to Atlanta I grabbed a sandwich from Arby’s Market and surfed the net for awhile. At 9:35 I hopped a 757 to Jacksonville. This time I DID get to sit in First. Too bad it was less than an hour flight.

I got to JAX, went to the Dollar counter, grabbed my car and hit the road. At 70MPH on I-95 I exited at Titusville about 1:15AM. Only a few miles to the Indian River and the first thing I noticed was that in the middle of the night… still three hours from launch time… there were hundreds and hundreds of people wandering toward the river. Yep. With only five shuttle launches remaining and with this being the last scheduled night launch, the crowds really came out. I found a place to park about four blocks from Space View Park.

After parking I walked the few blocks, through the park to the viewing area. It was mobbed. There must have been a couple thousand people here tonight. The guy I was talking to had been there since noon the day before.

Anyway I settled in (standing) for the three hour wait. They have NASA Mission Control piped in so you can listen to what is going on. The last crew member was just being stowed into the shuttle. There were low clouds over the launch pad and the big spotlights that shined on the shuttle and up into the air showed them very plainly. The biggest problem with the low clouds is that if the shuttle has an emergency they will turn around and land right here back at KSC. If the cloud deck is too low they may not have time to make a correction if they break out of the clouds too close to the ground. It’s not like they can give ‘er some gas and go around for another shot at landing. The clouds were a major issue and some of the other astronauts were doing takeoff and landings on the shuttle landing runway to test the visibility.

After a few built in holds in the countdown we approached the nine-minute mark for the last built in hold. This one was forty-five minutes. At this time the pad crew all jump in their vehicles and leave the launch pad area. Everyone continued to wait for the countdown to pick up at the end of the hold.

I knew if they picked up the countdown with nine minutes to go that they probably were going to go with the weather as it was. At that point the only issue would be a mechanical one.

The end of the hold quickly approached and the countdown was set to resume. There was only a five minute launch window so I knew we weren’t going to be waiting very long.

3.. 2.. 1.. Nothing. Everyone on the launch team was a ‘GO’ except the downrange weather. :(

All of a sudden launch control announced that a wavier had been granted to continue the countdown. A roar went up from the crowd. Others – including myself – looked at one another. A ‘waiver’? I’d never heard of such a thing. Really. The constraints are built in and nothing ever changes that. If the guidelines aren’t met that meant a scrub. But for some reason there was a ‘waiver’ granted. Hmmm. I guess they decided they really needed to get this launch off or something.

Then, very quickly, and to no ones surprise really – NASA Launch Director Mike Leinbach announced that he wasn’t comfortable with the waiver option and scrubbed the launch. The said they’d try again 24 hours later… Super Bowl Sunday. :(

Well I wasn’t about to stick around for another day so I started to walk back to the car along with a thousand other disappointed people. I say ‘tried to’ because… well I remember many times in my twenties standing in one spot for hours and hours watching a WHO or STONES concert at JFK stadium in South Philly… buy the end of the day my legs and knees were almost locked into place. Well when you’re 50 that only takes a couple hours. LOL.

I got back to the car and fought my way back to I-95 and headed north. I swallowed one of those 5-hour Energy Drink things. First time. I didn’t notice a thing. Seemed like a whole lot of nothing. I was still fighting sleep all the way back to Jacksonville.

I got back, turned in the car, hopped a flight to Atlanta at 8AM… hopped a flight to Memphis at 9:35 and was back at my car by 10AM CST. Whew. What a day. :)

Well at least I’d SEEN not one… but TWO other shuttle launches in my life. Most people had never seen even one.  The poor guy standing with me was from Delray Beach, Florida. This was his fourth attempt at witnessing a launch from up close. He’s now 0 for 4. He told me he was done. That was his last try.  Somehow, with only four left, I didn’t believe him. LOL.

I went home, fell into bed to get a few hours sleep before the Super Bowl came on. I had sort of forgotten all about the launch. I woke up the next morning to 8″ of snow on the ground.

8″ of snow. In Olive Branch, Mississippi. Imagine that.

I hadn’t even thought of it… but a few hours earlier – at 4:14:08 AM on Monday, February 8, 2009…

The Nighttime had turned to Day. :)

STS-130 - February 8, 2010 @ 4:14AM EST

Godspeed Endeavour!

A few last notes on STS-130.

The mission marks:

161st American manned space flight
130th shuttle mission since STS-1
24th flight of Endeavour
32nd shuttle mission to the ISS
1st shuttle flight in 2010
1st shuttle flight in the 2010s
105th post-Challenger mission
17th post-Columbia mission
34th night launch of a shuttle, 21st night launch from launch pad 39A

The mission is also expected to mark:

The last night launch of a shuttle
23rd night landing, 21st night landing at Kennedy Space Center
73rd landing at Kennedy Space Center