my first and only space shuttle launch

This morning at 4:14am Eastern Time, I got to see something I’ve never seen before, a space shuttle launch.  It was STS-130, and probably the last night time shuttle launch ever.

I was about 3 months old when Apollo 12 went to the moon, and about 11 years old when the thing we now call the “space shuttle” first flew.  For the next 10 years of my life, I thought I would become an aerospace engineer.  Back then, scientists and the media predicted there would be regular commercial space travel by the year 2010 or so, and I imagined I’d go into space.  Well, my personal interests changed and Challenger put a big damper on things.

Time passed, and somehow when I got to age 40, I still hadn’t seen a space shuttle launch (or any rocket launch bigger than an Estes model).  The space shuttle program is being retired later in 2010, with only 5 more missions planned, so time was running short to see one.  I took off a few days from work and made travel plans to visit Florida with Beth.  The main point of the trip was to see the shuttle launch, but we also went to do some birding (the area all around Kennedy Space Center is wildlife refuges, national seashores, and so on).

STS-130 is a shuttle mission to deliver one of the remaining major pieces of the International Space Station.  It was scheduled to launch at 4:39am on February 7.  I heard we could get VIP tickets by asking our Congressional representatives, so I arranged through Senator Udall’s office to get 2 Congressional VIP passes.  I was surprised to learn that you have to show up about 4.5 hours before launch time in order to go through security and take the bus to the viewing site.  So I could tell this was going to be an all-nighter.

Saturday night, after a long day of birding, walking on the beach, bar-hopping, and visiting Beth’s ex-boyfriend (along with his wife and step-daughter), we showed up at a parking lot near Sears on Merritt Island.  We stood in line for over an hour before getting checked in.  The long line was the first indication that this wasn’t exactly the “VIP” experience I was hoping for.  It was several hundred people, and although we were told to not bring coolers or bags, everyone else had sleeping bags, folding chairs, backpacks, camera tripods, blankets, etc.  We eventually boarded bus #6 and they drove us to Kennedy Space Center.

At KSC, the bus had to then wait in a long line of buses for about another hour.  Once our bus got to the front, we all had to get off, leaving everything on the bus, so we could go through the metal detector.  While we were off the bus, a bomb sniffing dog inspected it.  That went quick, and we were back on the bus in no time at all.  Then, it was another 15 or 20 minute drive to the viewing area.

As Congressional VIPs we got free admission, but the bus dumped us off at the same place as everyone else.  You can go through a tour company and pay about $58 per person to get a bus ride to the same place with the same amenities as we got.

The viewing area was a long narrow man-made island with a road called the NASA causeway.  Amenities included access to a port-a-john, a souvenir stand, and a snack bar.  And if you get there early enough, you can grab one of NASA’s white plastic chairs.  Otherwise you sit on the ground.  About this time it was 2:30 in the morning, so everyone was cold and it was dark, so the mood wasn’t really jovial.  Many people were asleep.

As we were getting off the bus, though, I’d gotten a bad feeling about the weather in the form of a Tweet on my cell phone saying that weather conditions were now “no go”.  They improved later on, but then they got worse again.  So, by launch time, there was a layer of low clouds that caused the launch Sunday morning to be scrubbed.

So we got back on the bus, went back to the parking lot, and then drove back to our hotel in the dark.  Unfortunately, about 30,000 other people were trying to drive back the same direction, and it took us over an hour to get to our hotel.  We arrived just as the sun was rising, and then tried to rest up for another day of it.

NASA told us they were going to reschedule for the next day, only this time we should show up at the Sears parking lot half an hour earlier because the second attempt was going to be at 4:14am instead.  So Sunday night we arrived at 11:30pm.  We knew the drill from the previous night, and so we made a few improvements.  This time we brought Pepsi, Starbuck’s Mocha Frappuchino, some chips, and a turkey sandwich.  Also, I studied the road map to find a way to get back to our hotel without hitting traffic.

About 25% of the people from the previous night couldn’t attend the second night.  And NASA didn’t feel they needed to recheck people’s IDs.  So getting through the line was only about 15 minutes instead of 75 minutes.  And our bus was the first one to the security checkpoint, so we didn’t have to wait there, either!  It was smooth sailing, and we were one of the first buses to arrive at the causeway, so we were even able to get two chairs.  We staked out our space in the front row, with an unobstructed view of the launch pad.

From the end of the causeway we were on, it’s about 7 miles to pad 39A, which is where this shuttle was set up to launch from.  Turns out there’s a pad 39B that shuttles can use, too, but that one is a little more distant, I guess.

The view was amazing.  Even though it was 7 miles away, there are the biggest floodlights you’ve ever seen that bathe the entire shuttle and pad in light so you can see it in the middle of the night.  I had good binoculars borrowed from my brother Kent, and could see it really well through those.  Beth set up her tripod with her camera because she wanted to get some photos and knew she’d need a tripod so the camera wouldn’t shake around.

The downside of the quick travel to the viewing area was that once we were there, we had to sit and stand around in the cold breeze for about two and a half hours.  It was around 45 degrees, with a cool moist breeze blowing right in our faces from across the water.  So we entertained ourselves with some ballroom dancing, random jumping around, and occasional walks down to the big countdown sign by the bleachers.  Anything to stay warm.  The people who brought sleeping bags and blankets?  Well, they were warm enough to sleep, but I don’t know how they did it, with the NASA announcer talking through the loudspeakers all night.

One thing I learned about shuttle countdowns is that when they say it’s at “T minus 2 hours” or whatever, that doesn’t really mean it’s going to launch in 2 hours.  There are several planned “holds” in the countdown.  I don’t know what they’re doing during these holds, but it’s essentially like a timeout on the game clock for your favorite sporting event.  The big one was the “T minus 9 minutes” hold.  Once the clock resumes with 9 minutes to go, it’s pretty much a done deal that the shuttle is going to launch.

T minus 9 minutes is where the launch was scrubbed Sunday morning due to weather, so you can imagine the cheering on the causeway when the SRO (Superintendent of Range Operations) made a “GO” call this morning, meaning he was satisfied with the weather at all abort landing sites, including Kennedy.  Once they started the 9 minute clock, things happened fast, and just like you’ve seen on TV and in the movies.  Of course, most of those are daytime launches, and this one was in the dark, which made it interesting.

At T minus 6 seconds, the three main engines turned on and all the water that’s part of the noise suppression system turned to steam.  That cloud of steam rose up so I couldn’t see the orbiter anymore.  Then there was this super bright light behind the white clouds.  That was the solid rocket boosters lighting.  Once those are lit, there’s no coming back, so they blew the explosive bolts holding the shuttle down.  Six seconds later, the shuttle rose above the cloud of steam and cleared the launch tower.  I was still looking through the binoculars at this point, but that didn’t last long.  That’s a brilliant light with all five engines going full blast at once, and I couldn’t look straight at it.

So I put down the binoculars and enjoyed the rest of the show with the naked eye.  At this point, there was no way I could make out the orbiter.  All I saw was the brightest man-made light I can imagine.  We were 7 miles away, and the whole area lit up for miles around like sunrise.  I could see the other islands, the water, all the buildings in the distance, and everyone around me.  At twelve seconds after the main engines ignited, the sound hit.  That’s something I hadn’t thought of until this trip.  Being 7 miles away, the shuttle was already way up in the air by the time I heard it.  Then 3 seconds later it got even louder, as the sound from the solid rockets hit.

As Endeavour was continuing up into the sky, it passed through a cloud that made a really cool halo effect around its bright light.  The night sky was so clear this morning that I was able to watch the shuttle continue on up and up for a few minutes.  Through the binoculars, I saw the solid rocket boosters separate and fly away from the rest of the shuttle.  Then the light from the shuttle shrunk to the size of a distant airplane.  Then to the size of a star.  And then I couldn’t see it any more.

As we packed up our things, I noticed that the intense light and sound from the launch woke up all the birds in the area.  The causeway was swarmed with dozens of sea birds that we hadn’t seen until then.  I continued to listen to the PA system, wanting to savor every last second.  I heard them call that they could now make it to orbit on only two of the three remaining engines.  And then, that they could now make it on just one engine.  And finally, I heard them announce “nominal MECO” – main engine cut-off.  That means the main engines were turned off, the big liquid fuel tank was separated, and Endeavour was coasting to orbit.

So with Endeavour successfully launched, we got back on the bus, and headed home.  My alternate route back to the hotel paid off and we didn’t get stuck in any traffic.  So we stopped at IHOP for a very sleepy breakfast, and then to a warm cozy bed for a few hours.  I think I finally woke up at about 1pm.

Here are a few links if you want to learn more about all this.

First, the generic Wikipedia article on the Space Shuttle.

Here’s a Wikipedia page specifically about the shuttle mission we saw launched.

NASA, of course, has their own web page about STS-130.

Here are some photos from a journalist who got to watch the launch from the top of the Vehicle Assembly Building.

Here’s a YouTube video of the launch, taken from NASA’s TV station:

Categorized as Travel


  1. Great description. Thanks. It made me feel that I was (almost) right there. What a wonderful memory and so closely tied to your life’s journey…or could have been if a different road would have been taken.

  2. Hi! We’ll be following your footsteps this Friday…hopefully! STS-134 Endeavour launch…VIP Congressional Passes. Thanks so much for the great description of what we are about to experience. Would love to know your “alternative route” A’s we’ll be staying in Titusville A’s well.


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