If you follow me on Twitter, then you know that I’ve been tweeting/talking about NASA for a few months now. I found out I was 1 of 150 civilians chosen by NASA to attend the final launch of the Endeavour space shuttle in March. We’d be stationed at the press site, 3.1 miles from the launch pad. My first trip to NASA two weeks ago totally blew my mind; the program they put together for us was amazing. Meeting astronauts, new tweeps, and a few movie stars was more than I could ever wish for…. and a shuttle launch too? Icing on the cake. Except the launch was scrubbed…. for the second time….
Over the past two weeks, I agonized over whether to return to Kennedy Space Center for the launch. Would the ramifications on work (and not to mention the bank account) be worth it? Now that I’m back, I know the answer: Hell yes.
The #NASAtweetup redux started before I had even landed in Florida. My flight arrived too late to see the rotating service structure (RSS) retraction, although my friend Jennifer Huber (@jenniferhuber) captured the event beautifully over on her blog. (Read her post here.) My actual experience began at 2:15 a.m. EDT on Monday – launch day – when Jennifer and I headed over to Kennedy Space Center.
For those of you who know me well, you know that nothing – and I mean NOTHING – gets me out of bed at 2 a.m. Do you know what I’m usually doing on either side of 2 a.m.? Sleeping. But I found myself in the passenger seat of Jennifer’s car, cruising down empty streets towards KSC. We arrived at the press site shortly after 3 a.m. and were able to watch the news pros set up for the day. (BTW, I spent most of the morning staring at news guy Bill Hemmer.)
The first event on our agenda was to wave to the Astro Van, the van that carries the astronauts to the launch pad. Some of my fellow tweeps made “no u-turn signs” since we were standing alongside the road and waving to the van when the previous launch attempt was scrubbed. After the waving, we were treated to a briefing about the Sensor Test for Orion RelNav Risk Mitigation (STORRM) system and new sensor technology that would make it easier for docking with the International Space Station.
Then came the good stuff. The moment we were all waiting for – the launch. Jennifer and I had set up our tripods as close to the rope line as possible, which was behind the countdown clock. Someone was streaming the countdown to their iPhone, but I think we were a little off from the actual count. As the number 4 passed my lips, I saw the first signs of ignition. Big plumes of black smoke.
What I knew going in was that I would see the launch happen before the sound would reach us. Three miles out means a 12 second delay – the time needed for the sound to travel that far. In that 12 second window, Endeavour was about to punch through the cloud cover when the first sound washed over us.
I’ve been struggling with the words to describe what a launch sounds like from that close. You feel it more than you hear it. It’s not the knock-you-out-of-your-seat kind of sound. It’s more like a rolling thunder that washes over you and then seeps into your bones. My spine was tingling, the hair on my neck and arms were standing on end, and all the while my brain was trying to comprehend that the shuttle was out of sight already and that I was hearing what I’d already seen. The sound is huge, powerful, and like nothing that I’ve ever heard before. The sound reminded me that I was a tiny human in a really, really big and amazing world.
The launch was two days ago so I’ve had ample time to pick my jaw up off the floor and jump back into real life again. My takeaway from all of this is simple: You/ me/all of us can do incredible things. It’s in us. We just need to tap into it.
To see the full photo gallery that chronicles my trips to Kennedy Space Center for the launch attempts, please see Photos.Frembes.com/NASA.
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