When someone offers you the once in a lifetime chance to see something as historic as the final Space Shuttle Flight: You go. As a child I assembled a puzzle of the Challenger illuminated by those bright xenon lights, and dreamt of space flight. And last week I went to see the last launch the world will ever see of a Space Shuttle. Atlantis. STS-135. What follows is the story of my brief stay at the Kennedy Space Center.
My flight was uneventful. Despite spending more time getting my luggage and rental car in Orlando than I actually spent FLYING from Detroit, I checked into an Orlando hotel with enough time to get a few hours sleep before my early morning drive to the Kennedy Space Center. Traffic wasn't bad at all with like 30 hours to go. I got my badge using 2 forms of ID: My Drivers License, and My Michigan Fishing License. This tickled me immensely (I had my passport in my bag just in case. I wasn't taking any chances!). As I drove up the road, I saw the VAB from miles away. I saw it once before when I was in middle school. It was massive then, and even bigger now. I choked up a bit for what wouldn't be the last time.
After several security checkpoints I got parked, and found my way to the Press Site. I was more than bit lost. This place was pure chaos: I was told that 2600 press had been accredited for this event: surpassing the 1500 for the previous mission, and well beyond the sub-1000 that has been typical for launches. It was gonna be insane, and everyone knew it. Every inch of wall had someone leaning or sitting against it. Laptops and Cameras filled every inch of desk and most inches of floor as well.
Over the course of the day, it was increasingly gloomy outside. The skies were dark. The 30% chance of launch kept everyone a bit in the dumps. During a press conference, a series of massive thunderclaps made people on camera jump, and everyone present just sorta accepted that Friday would see a scrub. Various statistics and terms were tossed about by the folks in the press room that all combined to tell a story that it was basically time to call it a day.
I met up with several of the guys from Spacearium: Matt Travis was the guy who helped me get my badge. He's a wiry fellow utterly obsessed with all things space. Strong opinions. Sarcastic. Amazingly dedicated to his work. When sane people were trying to sleep, he was constantly tweeting or posting to his site. He wanted to get the news out a few minutes before his competitors. He is dedicated to his work, and incredibly intense. The sort of fellow you'd much prefer on your side. You should really read his site: he craves the traffic, and he deserves it. He also works on The Ares Institute, Inc which is a non-profit that is trying to get students interested in space projects to get them into math & science. You can donate some cash- they are a non-profit.
Working with Matt were some cool photographers: Aubrey Hatcher normally photographs people. Her portfolio is awesome- If you live near the space coast and need a photographer for a wedding or your kids, you could do no better. I was seriously jealous of her skill. Mike Killian was very clear: he doesn't want to take pictures of weddings: he was all about the machines. As far as I can tell, he basically had been living at KSC taking cool pictures of whatever he could get access to. His pictures put mine to shame. He shot countless images that deserve to be your background image.
Carl Darden works at a small observatory. He and I were noobs together, riding on buses, hanging out with our jaws on the floor. Lloyd Behrendt is the eccentric artist type: he photographs on film and paints the prints for galleries. He's been watching launches forever and had tons of energy.
There were countless other cool people I met too. Several Slashdot readers tapped me on the shoulder, asked me questions, or even shared an umbrella with me while I needed to change a lens in the rain. It's always a wonderful experience to encounter Slashdot readers out in the "real" world. We're a breed apart. We smell our own. A bit of that social dysfunction coupled with passion and knowledge. I spend so much time isolated in Michigan that I often forget how real you guys are, and how we all are sort of a 'type'.
For me, besides the launch, all I wanted was a chance to get close and see Atlantis on the pad. It didn't look like I would get that chance since there was a thousand more people here than they really could handle, the buses were limiting folks. 3 buses lined up, and a hundred photographers laid their expensive gear in a long row to be nuzzled by bomb sniffing dogs. After more than a half our of waiting, the clouds burst. Since I was standing by on the off chance of an empty seat, I grabbed my bag and ran. I couldn't have been wetter if I jumped in a pool by the time I made it back to the press center.
The NASA Tweetup buses left before the photographers. They got to see the gantry retraction. There was palpable bitterness by the reporters I talked to. I think they pretty universally understood the importance of this grassroots thing, but it didn't help things knowing that these upstarts were lollygagging in an air conditioned tent with Elmo, and jumping in front of professional photographer's shots. And they got to see the retraction: a pretty big event around these parts, while the vast majority of the press stood in a downpour waiting to ride a bus with their gear under umbrellas and trash bags.
I got the last daytime bus. we traced the road to the landing pad, passing the crawler parked on the giant rocky road that STS-135, and it's 134 predecessors traced before it. The shuttle loomed on the horizon, and as we parked, I was told that we were to stand on the crawler road. Hallowed ground to me. I stood slack-jawed, staring at this massive icon. The orange tank. The SRBs. And Atlantis itself. It was bigger and smaller than I imagined. I took some pictures that I later downloaded and was very happy with, but the vets complained about the clouds and haze. They spoke about how the story would be the clouds and the gloom and the sadness surrounding the end of the shuttle program.
I had a hard time sharing the pessimism: I was soaked. And giddy. When we got back, I told everyone I met "Did you know there's a Spaceship over there? Outside? Getting Rained on? A SPACESHIP! SERIOUSLY!". And it got better.
After a long walk to the cafeteria and a terrible dinner, Carl and I got in line for a "Sunset" photo opportunity. The bitter vets said that it would be just the same light as the daytime photos I had taken a few hours ago, but I knew this would be the last chance for me to get so close. I missed the first bus and wasn't really expecting to make it as the sun was dropping in the sky. But the long line worked in my favor: I got a seat on the very last bus- sitting near Klaus Wilkens, a photographer who had taken pictures for NASA as far back as Apollo. He told tales of days of old, of Haselblad cameras and film and the migration to digital.
The bus driver told us that the best bug repellent was some hand lotion and gin. I asked everyone I could how many launches they had seen. Some remembered STS-1. A few were around for the Challenger disaster. The knowing smiles were so sincere. They knew this was the end, but they all had a job to do. The NASA folks had a pride about them even tho I imagine almost every one of them is out of a job.
And then we arrived for the last time. There stood Atlantis illuminated by the giant spotlights lights as the sun fell. The cloudy skies didn't matter, everything was cloudy and then dark blues and rapidly turned black. I fired off a few pictures. I tried to take a picture of the shuttle reflected in a puddle but before I could get my exposure right the NASA escort made me get my ankle out of the road. (They are strict out there, but fair). The bugs were unbelievable: Giant hungry beasts out for my blood- I wished I had that Gin and Lotion combination the driver mentioned, if only to drink the gin. Everyone was swatting the monsters and being consumed alive. But it was totally worth it. I got a picture that I will treasure as long as I live. It's pretty close to that picture that I assembled in puzzle form in the 80s at the start of the shuttle program. Sure, other pictures will look more pro, but I took this one with my hands. My eyes. My camera. This really was mine. I was pretty emotional. I was torn when it was time to leave: the bugs were awful, but I wished I could have had a few more minutes in front of this symbol of my childhood. Or maybe a tent.
We had a long night ahead of us still. Tanking wasn't scheduled to start until 1:30am or so. If tanking was delayed, it meant we would all go back to homes and hotels for the night, returning the next day for a saturday launch But if tanking went ahead, it meant we would all be sleeping in our cars or at our desks briefly, waiting for a day that would start at 6am. To kill time we went out to the lagoon shore and Mike shot some beautiful time- lapse photos of the shuttle and the big xenons firing off into the clouds, as well as the giant clock and the VAB. He'll sell you a hi-res copy. It would be worth it it's picture 143-145 in that gallery: everyone buy some prints so he can buy a full frame camera!
I spent much of the evening waiting in the chair reserved in the press site for Make Magazine. I figured Tim O'Reily wouldn't mind to much! NASA confirmed tanking was a go, and I retired to sleep in the back seat of my rental Hyundai Elantra. It was one of the worst nights of sleep I've ever had. My 6 foot tall frame is not designed to sleep in a fetal position in the back seat of a compact car.
I awoke to my phone and a call to hurry! They were boarding the buses to the astrovan loading: the last time the public sees the astronauts before the launch. I hurried over, stopping quickly to set up my tripod on the shore, saving my spot for the launch that I still wasn't really expecting to happen. The storms from yesterday and the lightning and thunder seemed to ominous. I got in line just as the bomb sniffing dogs were doing their thing.
We spent a lot of time waiting for the astronauts. The wire services and more experienced photographers had set up a wall of ladders. I gave Carl my spare camera to take some pictures, but he was unsure how to use it, and ended up shooting over 100 out of focus pictures! While we were waiting people talked about the odds of a launch, and someone said something I hadn't heard: we were a go. That meant that if it was 11:26 right NOW, the weather would not be prohibitive. I started watching the skies more intently, and realized there was a lot more blue than there was at any point yesterday. For the first time, I thought that maybe I could actually see a shuttle launch today.
The astronauts came out and waved in their fashionably orange suits. It lasted just a few seconds, and then they boarded the van and were gone, on their way to space. A hoard of reporters returned to buses. Uhura was there and Carl tried to take her picture with the lens cap on. I couldn't stop laughing.
After that is was a waiting game. There was really nothing for us to do but wait as NASA reported little tidbits of information about the state of the launch. I visited the #NASATweetup tent and saw Seth Green pose in the captains chair of a capsule mock-up. Several people in the press room cited names of numerous celebrities present. I snagged a bottle of water from the Boeing booth. Gotta stay hydrated in all that Florida heat.
The clock left its planned hold at T-Minus 09:00 right as I returned to the tripod I left by the shore at sunrise. I mounted my camera and got everything ready as the clock counted down. The field of people was giddy. A woman nearby me had a radio and was repeating the announcements as NASA made them. There was a constant amplified warnings telling people to stay out of the way of the giant clock so the networks could video it.
At 31 seconds, that clock stopped. The entire crowd freaked out. We heard word that there was a fault warning on a retraction. Everyone started grumbling and freaking out, assuming that this was the end of our day. But a moment or two later the clock started: You have never heard a cheer like this. A thousand strangers chanted together with the countdown. And then it happened.
The massive clouds of smoke billowed out the sides of the tower poking out above the trees. The shuttle rising slowly, and then faster. And then the noise shaking your guts from over 3 miles away. As the shuttle gets higher you see this column of fire pushing it up faster and faster.
And then it was gone: lost in the clouds. The last time human eyes will see a shuttle leave a launchpad. I held down the remote trigger on my camera the whole time: there was no way I was going to witness this event through the eyepiece of a gadget. You'll see better pictures in magazines, but I've never taken a picture of a rocket before, and I was happy that it wasn't a blurry mess. My memory will fade but those pictures won't.
Everyone cheered. Yelled. Whooped. The excitement was unbelievable. I actually teared up, but I'm pretty sure nobody noticed me wiping my eyes with my shirt. The folks closest to me know that this isn't exactly an uncommon event for me, but I felt it all come back: A little kid alone in his basement building a puzzle of the shuttle, dreaming of space. Watching my dad play a silly Apollo moon lander simulation game on a monochrome Compaq 8086 PC luggable. Seeing Challenger through the library window on a day when I was to young to understand what it meant for 7 people to die in the name of science exploration. I learned about computers because of all this stuff. The Space Shuttle was an honest to god spaceship. It filled the gap between science fiction and science reality.
I don't know what's next for NASA. For manned spaceflight. For the Kennedy Space Center itself. Times are changing: with the rise of Space-X and the constant budget concerns, it's unclear which of our hopes and dreams will actually come to fruition. But I was a little kid who dreamt of the shuttle. I have a 3 year old now, and I told him before I left that I was going to go see a Spaceship, and I think he thought I was lying. He knows the Millennium Falcon is a spaceship, but that it's also pretend. Atlantis was real. I saw it with my own eyes with a tower of fire underneath it. It shook my body and I hope my sons have something to inspire them the same way.
We're going to pay the Russians to put our guys in space now. And when we do finally get back up there on our own, it won't be the same it'll be just a capsule. I understand the economics and science of the decision but we have a giant metal statue on an island off New York City that challenged the world to come here and be free. But that giant tower just stands there silently. For the last 30 years we've had another giant metal statue that we strapped a huge fuel tank and 2 rockets to, and we shot it up into space over a hundred times. If the Statue of Liberty reminds us of our freedoms and opportunities in this country, the Space Shuttle shows us what we can do with them. But only if we were willing to put down the puzzle, and crack open a textbook. Learn some math. Some science. And dream big.
Here's me, in 8th grade with my brother from my first visit to Kennedy space center some 25 years ago.
Here are my photos of the trip where you can find higher res versions of everything on this page, plus a hundred or so more. Thanks again to Matt Travis from Spacearium for getting me there. Hopefully I'll see you again someday. Thanks to Mike, Carl, Aubrey and Lloyd for being good company and answering my dumb questions about F-Stops and rules. And thanks to the countless NASA folks who were nothing but friendly and pleasant, even when lines, weather and crowds made things tough. I saw nothing but class the entire time.