May 11th last year I got to check another item off the bucket list, seeing the launch of the space shuttle in Florida; this one being STS-125 Atlantis: the final Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. And without further ado, here are the only two pictures I have of the event...
Okay, they're not the only pictures I took that day...but I didn't take any during the launch. Are those gasps I hear? To be honest, I hadn't really planned to take photos of the launch because, well...I'm just not worthy. Perhaps not my photographic skills, as it were, but certainly my equipment waned in the presence of so many others lined up along the rope which discouraged any of the 20,000 parched observers on the causeway from dipping their toes in the cool water of the estuary. From six miles away, even they would have trouble of matching the incredible images taken by cameras closer to the action and posted online by NASA within hours. (And in just a few weeks, Brendan and I will get to see this same launch on an IMAX screen. Woohoo...won't be able to beat that view! But I digress.)
So I wanted to be there for the experience; and I had used up one of my wild cards to get there. Did you know you can ask your US representative for a free pass to a shuttle launch? I saw the story online of another guy who'd done it--so I emailed Gabrielle Giffords' office and shamelessly drew the cancer-card to request a VIP pass. Then, as the guy in the other story had done, I called Giffords' office to alert them to my email. Apparently, this is a good tactic to get someone to personally attend to your email, no matter what your issue. They were a bit confused at first but quite friendly and soon found somebody who knew just the person to send it to in the PR office. As luck would have it, the father of one of Brendan's playmates knows the congresswoman and also put in a good word, though it appears my initial request had gotten the ball rolling. Everything was efficiently and personably handled through email--so we planned our Orlando vacation!
Launch turns out to be the second full day of the vacation; it had been delayed one day but we knew about that way beforehand. It's scheduled for around 2 p.m.--so we have to get up about 5:00 a.m. And we're still on Tucson time. Yuck.
As I was aware, a VIP pass isn't what it used to be. Apparently, it used to get you to the press area with the big digital clock that you always see on TV, just three miles from the launch pad. Now it just gets you to the causeway six miles away, where they dump you with 20,000 other spectators who have paid upwards of $100 each for the same adventure.
That adventure pretty much consists of waiting. First it was next to Sears in the corner of a shopping mall parking lot in the town of Merritt Island...where we got in line with 200 other people checking in with VIP passes and loading into four buses. Then it was over to the KSC Museum where they had security screening set up outside. At least we got to wait in the air-conditioned bus this time. Then it was an hour or so getting out to the causeway in a line of 400 other buses--where they drop us in the humid 95-degree sun of Florida with little shade and about two-and-a-half hours until launch. I spent half that time in lines for t-shirts, a few dry hot dogs and some cold drinks; while having absent-mindedly taken with me the handful of toys we'd brought to keep Brendan occupied.
Lest I sound a bit down on the experience thus far, I should mention that our PR chaperones did a really good job. They showed some videos on the bus which helped keep the kids occupied and were quite generous with the souveniers. I keep finding space station pins at home, like beach sand after a vacation.
Kirsteen and Brendan gain a couple of sympathy-seats under one of the few canopies that have been set up. The shade is nice but I find the huddled mass of humanity blocks too much of the breeze, so I settle for an open spot of sun to sweat it out. Finally, it's time; a few folks are murmuring the countdown as they listen to it on the radio. 4...3...2...a cloud billows across the estuary and the shuttle rises into the air.
Then Brendan melted down.
He hadn't wanted me to hold him up higher and was having trouble seeing the first part of the launch. When he did see it, a sensory reaction occurred that I hadn't anticipated. We'd told him how loud it was going to be, but I'd never thought about how bright it was. He thought it was the sun and was afraid to look at it! He ran under the canopy and hid.
The sound did hit and it was as loud and gutteral as advertised. It really is a different experience in person. No camera can convey the three-dimensionality of the sky and the speed at which the shuttle leaps into air and arcs toward the northeastern horizon. And then it's over...and I'm standing there with a crying child and facing another two hours to get back to the car. I wasn't a very good father the rest of the day and that is the part I regret the most. Was it all worth it?
Well, turns out Brendan LOVED Sea World!!
(And the fireworks at Disneyworld were pretty cool too.)
One of the best photos ever of me and Brendan,
courtesy an anonymous Disney employee.
Feeding the "string" rays (cow-face rays) at Sea World was a huge hit!
And I took a ride on Manta! (I'm not in these pictures.)