Monday, February 28, 2011

Final launch of Discovery....and I was there!

Tom and Keith awaiting launch
I just got back from Florida Saturday night.  A long day of traveling with a drunk cowboy kicking the back of my seat all the way across the country.  I nearly turned around and told him what I thought but figured he would chase me through the terminal once I got off the plane.
It was kind of a quick decision to go to the launch, it was delayed back in November for a bunch of reasons including the cracks in the tank which required it to go back to the hanger for repairs.  Expecting a clogged up Gator Tours server the morning they sold them, I was surprised to find the web site open and fully functional.  Bought a ticket and realized at that point that it was time for a vacation, I was going to the launch!
As usual, anytime you try to see this thing fly, it's stressful.  Tickets bought about a month ahead, then NASA has to have the Flight Readiness Review to "officially" lock in the launch date and time about 2 weeks before flying.   The FRR passed (*whew!*) and launch was officially 2/24/11 at 4:50pm.

 (click on any of the photos to see full size)

Final time on 39A
Flew out on the red-eye flight on the 22nd at midnight.  I'll have to say that I sleep better on the daily ride on the Metro 111 bus than I did on the 737.  I kept waking up with my arm asleep, ankle jammed, drool on my chin or back twisted.  I met with Keith, one of my friends that I ride the bus with to work.  I actually talked him into going (not much arm twisting required).  He bought a ticket, and planned his trip around the Daytona 500 race.  Keith is also a pilot, although all his landings are engine-out (he flies and owns a glider), so we do speak the same language.  It was fun to have someone to travel around with, even if I do run into other people in Florida that I know from the forums or other connections.  Hard-core space geeks tend to know each other even if located in different parts of the world!
Discovery has cleared the tower!
After a little sleep on the night of the 23rd, I dragged out of bed at about 4am.  Shower, breakfast, gathering of cameras and enjoying the feeling of wearing shorts and a t-shirt in late February, we met the tour bus a few miles down the road. 
Several hours at the visitor center and back on the bus for the ride to the causeway.  I heard there was about 400,000 people there for this launch.  Not sure if that was total or just on NASA property.  I was just glad I wasn't driving!
The final hours before the launch are spent staring at the spacecraft across the water, watching an occasional dolphin, talking with total strangers who all share a common excitement, and checking, rechecking the camera again and again.
Rolling over and climbing
In the final moments of the countdown everyone is on their feet with cameras poised, all eyes out toward the east at the white space-plane in the distance.   What's that?!  The announcer said that the Range Safety has a problem and they are going to hold at the 5 minute mark.  Aw, Crap!!  Spacecraft, weather, crew, everything is go, but the team that blows up the shuttle if it strays toward the  Magic Kingdom is having a computer problem.  Tension and stress builds as the count continues.  Thirty years and the Range Safety hasn't had to blow up a shuttle, just pop Challenger's wandering boosters after they destroyed the shuttle with the leaky o-rings.  They won't blow up Discovery on her final flight, get on with it!
With only 3 seconds remaining in the launch window the countdown was resumed.  Talk about stress!!!  Normally I'm a fairly quiet person but I did yell out a "YEAAAHHHH!!!" and punched my fist in the air when I heard that.  I wonder who's had a faster heart rate in the final minutes?  Me or the astronauts strapped into that thing?  Pretty intense excitement - even after seeing 2 other launches.
I've tried to describe launches before, but it's just hard to really put it in words that can describe what it's like.  I did notice more this time the feeling of the sound hitting my chest, but didn't notice any feeling of the ground shaking or anything.  I just wish the shuttle would take it's time getting off the ground the show happens so fast.  I feel that this launch was the fastest that I have seen, but I know that isn't the case.  If it would just struggle into the air and pick up speed slower, like the old Saturn V did, then we could enjoy the feeling and view of it longer.   But it's a hot rod compared to the Saturn and doesn't waste time leaving the planet.
Booster separation - always a relief
It's kind of an emotional thing too seeing the last flight.  Growing up with the shuttle over the last 30 years I have always tried to watch or record the launches whenever I could.  When I was in high school, I would delay my bike ride to school and get an excuse note from mom so I wouldn't get busted for being late.  I would then ride my bike to school imagining it was a shuttle.  I would ride as fast as I could for 2 minutes and jump a curb (no bike helmet in those days) when my 'boosters' separated then coast the rest of the way down main street.  I was imaginative!  I still collect flown items, models, autographs of astronauts lucky enough fly in it, and read most of the books I can get my hands on about the shuttle.
Empty pad
Shuttle stuff in dining room
In the last few minutes of the countdown, I realized I was witnessing a very historical moment - the last time Discovery would fly.  I felt kind of sad...then the Range problem, the tension, and finally the biggest thrill of seeing 6.8 million pounds of thrust ignite just 6 miles away.
As I write this, I just heard they extended the mission for one more day.  Hopefully, they will take the Soyuz for a flight around the "pattern" and take some photos of the entire ISS complex with Discovery and all the other cargo spacecraft and Soyuz docked.  Such an amazing photo that will be if they work it out and do it.
Then in a few days we'll hear the call "Discovery, wheels stopped" after she lands for the final time.....never to fly again, that will be a sad moment.
Godspeed Discovery!


Anonymous said...

Very well put Tom! :-D

Linda said...

Nice post, brother! Almost like being there! (Except the part where I'd burst into tears... ;-)

Anonymous said...

Wonderful description of the whole thing! It would be even better if every time the media mentions it, the final comment wasn't, "The Discovery will then go to the Smithsonian." Argh! I thought the Smithsonian said they couldn't afford the expenses of getting it.

Karlene Petitt said...

Tom, I'm jealous. What a great trip. Emotional? Oh... no kidding. I'm sure I would have cried. Beautiful pictures. Thanks for sharing this great adventure. Love the dining room pictures.