Go for Launch!

posted Apr 8, 2010, 6:17 PM by Stephen Zenter
Sara and I had one of the most amazing experiences this week – a Space Shuttle launch!  Having the opportunity to see a launch in person does not come often as a flight controller.  Ironically enough, working the missions does not allow you to get out to KSC (Kennedy Space Center) to actually attend the launch.  So we seized the opportunity of me not working the current Shuttle-ISS mission (STS-131/ISS 19A) and flew out to Orlando this past weekend. 

We enjoyed the Orlando area, as it was our first time to vacation there.  It did not take long for Sara to find the outlet malls. Note to self – leave some extra room in the luggage next time for the return trip.  The Titanic exhibit was quite entertaining, given that we experienced the maiden voyage with the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown.  And of course it did not take me long to find some of Orlando’s great restaurants.

Monday morning we woke at 12:30am, met up with our friends Colin and Helen who were also in Florida for the launch, and made our way to KSC.  The drive took about an hour from Orlando to the gate at KSC, but as we got closer the excitement built.  Once we were through the gate, we made our way to the Causeway between Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Station (the birthplace of human spaceflight).  What we were about to experience became a little more real when, through the break in the trees, we saw the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building – where the Shuttles are stacked with the external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters, the largest enclosed volume in the world) and the majestic Space Shuttle Discovery awaiting launch from complex 39A.  She was illuminated by the xenon lights at the pad.

For the next three hours we sat on the edge of the water at the Cape, gazing out at Discovery on the pad, about eight miles away.  Astronaut Chris Ferguson was flying the Shuttle Training Aircraft overhead to monitor the weather and gave us a quick fly-by.  At 5:04 local time, the International Space Station flew right overhead and crossed the Earth's moon.  Seventeen minutes later, the Shuttle would head into the same orbit and quickly catch up. 

As the minutes counted down, we became more and more anxious.  Then came T-1 minute; it was becoming a reality.  We could see the sound suppression water  covering the bottom of the pad, and then the “sparklers” ignited under the main engines to burn off any remaining fuel at the pad as to not cause an explosion when the three main engines ignite.  I was impressed that we could see it all in such detail from miles away.  Just a few seconds later the solid rocket boosters ignited, followed by the three main engines.  Night turned to day in a split second, as the Shuttle broke from Earth's gravity.  And just when we thought it couldn't get any brighter, Discovery cleared the tower.  At that point the intense brightness doubled, and we watched Discovery travel into space.  Up to this point all was silent aside form the cheers and "Ooh"s and "Aah"s from us viewers.  But then the sound waves hit us all in the chest along with the intense sound of a Shuttle climbing to orbit (a sound that I cannot describe).  Thanks to the clear pre-dawn skies we watched the solid boosters separate from the stack and burn out as the Shuttle continued to Main Engine Cut-off (MECO).  Just a matter of minutes later, the plumes from the launch turned different colors of pink, orange, and purple.

The entire experience was impressive, emotional, and inspirational.  No matter how many people have described a launch to me, there is nothing like seeing it for yourself.  If you have the opportunity to go to Florida to see one of the last three launches - GO!!  We rounded off our trip with a few hours on Cocoa Beach and dinner with our friends who also attended the launch.  We had an amazing time witnessing history and hope to make it back to Florida for one more before the end of the Shuttle program.  Of course, we could not wait to get back to Houston and get Asto and Luna home.  They even received a good report card from the vet for being so cute and fun to play with.  It's hanging on our fridge; we're proud parents. 
(When we get the vacation pics loaded to the PC, we'll get some posted.  Don't expect many of the launch - We left that to the professionals so we could experience the full effect.)