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Sep 5, 2009

Discovery in Florida

Last week Monday, in the earliest hours of the morning, my girlfriend and I touched down in Orlando, Florida. We immediately picked up the rental car and drove out to Cocoa Beach, situated along the Atlantic coast, where we were planning on staying for the week. Then we slept. We were in Florida to see the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-128, which we expected would be pretty cool.

Discovery was supposed to launch at 1:36 AM Tuesday morning. We spent most of Tuesday gathering supplies, looking at exhibits at Kennedy Space Center, and waiting around in lines to get on buses. Despite an 80% favorable outlook, though, bad weather scrubbed the launch about 10 minutes before liftoff. Apparently the Shuttle doesn't respond well to lightning. As an aside, though, we learned that Apollo 12 was struck by lightning twice shortly after liftoff, but the systems in those days were sufficiently simple that it didn't cause major problems.

The next night, we made the same preparations and set out. When we arrived at Kennedy, we learned that the launch had been scrubbed due to a valve problem. The 8-inch liquid hydrogen fill and drain valve hadn't registered as closed when they tried to close it, which obviously was a huge problem. The absolute earliest they could attempt to launch again was 48 hours from then, but they weren't even making any suggestions about scheduling another attempt until they got a chance to look closely at the valve and its associated sensor (which they suspected of being the real source of the problem). They wanted to get it resolved quickly, though: their last chance to launch was Sunday night. If they were still on the ground at that point, the launch window closed and the next opportunity was more than a month later in October.

Disappointed, we headed back to the hotel. Our flight home was Thursday morning, and the next possible launch attempt was just after midnight on Friday morning. What were we going to do, we asked ourselves. Do we eat the cost of the flight and stick around until who knows when? Or head home and risk missing the single event we came to see? We decided to wait and see what they said on Wednesday about the valve. After all, the airline said we could cancel our flight up until an hour before it left, and the valve problem might have been bad enough that they had to delay until October, when we could return.

We went back to Kennedy on Wednesday and took the bus out to the Apollo/Saturn V Center and International Space Station Center, all the while keeping an eye on the Kennedy Space Center Twitter feed. In the early afternoon, they announced that they would indeed make another attempt early Friday morning, so we decided to cancel our tickets and stay. After all, there were four launch opportunities that weekend, so the odds seemed pretty good.

Thursday we spent doing very little, but it didn't pass entirely uneventfully. The mission managers decided they wanted more time to come up with contingency plans in case the valve acted up again, so they pushed the next attempt back another 24 hours to just before midnight on Friday. Just three launch attempts left before the August opportunity was gone.

Friday we decided to do something fun, so we rode out to Orlando to see Epcot at Walt Disney World. We had a great time, and my girlfriend was quite surprised as how much entertainment there is for adults as well as kids. We got a late start leaving Cocoa Beach, though, so all too soon it was time to get back in the car and make yet another trip to Kennedy.

Getting out of the park, back to the car, and out of the parking lot took longer than we anticipated, though. We were a little worried about getting to Kennedy on time, as they block off the roadways several hours before launch attempts to keep people from driving in to see the launch and putting themselves in harm's way. We had a vehicle placard that was supposed to get us past the roadblocks, but we hadn't ever tested it, and it was up to the security guys whether they wanted to honor it anyway. If we were sufficiently late, we'd be out of luck.

Of course, as we got on the freeway, we noticed that we were down to about a quarter of a tank of gas. My memory was that we were at a little under half a tank when we left Cocoa Beach, though, so it didn't seem like it would be a problem. We'd have to get gas shortly before or after the launch, but no big deal. About halfway between Orlando and Kennedy, though, the gas light goes on. In most of the US, that wouldn't be that big a deal, but the stretch of road between Orlando and the coast is basically all fields and wilderness. My girlfriend got rather worried. I told her it'd be fine, and hoped it would be. It wasn't like we could do anything about it, so we had to just keep on driving.

It was at this point that my iPhone saved the day. By finding a gas station? Not really. We did use it to find one, but the closest gas station turned out to be along the road we had to take anyway, so we would have stopped there regardless. No, what it did was give us peace of mind that we weren't going to run out of gas and miss the launch. And boy was that nice at that particular time. Late to where you're going and low on gas, just the knowledge that it's only 3 miles until one of your problems is solved is quite relaxing.

Flush with gas, we breeze onto Kennedy without a barricade in sight and find ourselves at the Visitor Center for the fourth time in five days. As before, we wait around in lines for a while and then board the buses. The crowd had really thinned out from Monday night's attempt, we presumed because they couldn't cancel flights and add vacation days quite as freely as we fortunately could. The weather forecast was only 60% favorable, but the attempt would go forward.

The buses for a launch take you out to the viewing area several hours early. On both the previous attempt and this one, we had gotten on the second or third bus to leave, so we got a prime spot right on the front edge of the seating area. Once you're there, though, there's basically nothing to do. There's a PA system that broadcasts NASA's coverage of the launch attempt, including some snippets from the radio traffic, but the launch timeline has large portions of built-in buffer space in case anything goes wrong, so when nothing has gone wrong there's a lot of just sitting. We got periodic updates on the weather, which were promising, but otherwise you're left to whatever distraction you brought with you. (Professor Layton, in my case.)

The final major decision point in a launch seems to be at about eleven minutes before liftoff, when they decide whether or not to restart the countdown, which has been holding at T-9:00 for about an hour. All the major groups on the launch team have to give a go/no-go signal when polled. When this time came around, a hush came over the crowd as everyone listened for the signals, especially trying to catch when weather went by. All "go". When they finished the poll, all the spectators started cheering.

The final minutes of the countdown flew by, with the NASA commentators describing all the steps the launch controllers and computers were taking as they happened. Final checks of computers and flight control systems, pressurization of suits. And at 11:59:37 PM, the countdown reached zero.

I was born after the advent of the Shuttle program, almost a decade after the last moon landing. I was three years old at the time of the Challenger disaster. Human spaceflight has just been a fact of life for me, along with air travel, radio, television, electricity, and all manner of other technological achievements.

Spending a week immersed in the process of spaceflight, culminating in the launch of one of the most powerful rockets ever built, gives you a new perspective on matters. Spaceflight is neither easy nor routine; it's actually incredibly complicated. Human beings strap themselves onto a rocket that releases more power than a nuclear weapon and then spend days, weeks, or even months at a time in an environment that is completely unlivable for all life as we know it.

Watching the incredible blast from the rocket engines light up the launch area like daylight, with a plume that was painful to look at, I couldn't help but think to myself how amazing it was that I was watching a man-made vehicle rocketing seven people into space. Literally into outer space, hundreds of miles above the surface of the Earth, where there's no water and basically no air and alternately intense solar radiation and freezing night. A place where you see fifteen sunrises a day. Where you can look down and see entire continents laid out before you, not on a map, but really there, with your naked eye.

It's amazing the kinds of things that the human race has managed to achieve, and maybe even more amazing to think that we do it often enough that it doesn't even make the news most of the time. Ho hum. Another group of people just went to space.