Ever since I was a child I have dreamed of watching a space shuttle launch in person and my opportunity finally came last week on a visit to Florida. After several changes to the launch date NASA finally settled on August 7th for the launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour (STS-118). We were able to obtain congressional passes from Representative J. Sestak through non-Crack Team personnel and viewed the launch for free from the NASA causeway viewing area.
Several things happened the week before the launch which conspired against my chances to see a successful launch. 1st, NASA was having trouble launching the mars probe Phoenix. They needed to get this probe on its way before its launch window closed or they would have to wait 2 years for the next window to open. NASA said they would probably delay the shuttle launch until after Phoenix was launched. Then, the orbiter failed a pressure leak test due to a poorly installed pressure seal. Thankfully, Phoenix was launched on August 4th and NASA got the faulty seal replaced. They only had to move the launch date 1 day to August 8th.
We arrived at the Merrit Island Mall to meet the bus for Kennedy Space Center. The bus took us to the parking lot of the visitors center where we went through the dumbest security inspection I have ever seen. We were asked to leave the bus and bring all of our smaller belongings but were allowed to leave larger items like folding beach chairs on the bus. Why we were allowed to leave items about the size and shape of a shoulder launched missile on the bus is beyond me. Once off the bus, we put our bags on a table and passed through a metal detector. The security guard ran his wand over my bag and when it squawked he asked me what was inside. After telling him I had a camera and a lens inside he said “ok” and I got back on the bus without the guard actually looking to see if I was telling the truth. The same thing could have been accomplished much faster if the guard just popped his head on the bus and asked if we were carrying anything not allowed on the launch site, except we were never told what we weren’t allowed to bring and we were nowhere near our cars if they decided something we had was not allowed.
After we got back on the bus we were driven to the NASA causeway viewing area. I have to give it to NASA for getting something right. With very little information to go on I had feared the worst. The temperature in Florida at the time was over 100�F with the heat index. I assumed we were going to be dropped off onto an empty field and left there until after the launch. When we arrived there were chairs covered with tents, vendors selling food, and water stations where you could refill water bottles for free. There was a light breeze so the temperature wasn’t too unpleasant and there were very few, if any, mosquitos. Also, all the busses that took people to the viewing area stayed there with their air conditioners running so you could hang out on the bus until just before the launch if you wanted to. I got the impression that, unlike Universal and Disney, NASA actually wanted us to survive the experience.
I spent several weeks prior to my trip arranging to have an acceptable amount of photographic equipment on hand and in hindsight I would have done things a little differently. I own a Canon 5D and borrowed a Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L zoom lens and rented a Canon EF 2.0x II teleconverter. This gave me an 800mm f/11 lens which I mounted on my Manfrotto 3021 tripod. In addition, I unwisely used both a haze filter and a circular polarizer which made the viewfinder very dark. I took a meter reading through the camera and then set it to manual at ISO 400, f/11, 1/250s so the bright exhaust from the solid rocket boosters wouldn’t cause incorrect exposures during liftoff. I also turned off the image stabilization on the lens (which gets confused on a tripod) and the autofocus (which wouldn’t have worked anyway). The launch was on SLC-39A which was about 6 miles from the viewing area and it was a very hazy day. I was lucky for the launch to be on the southern pad which is about 2 miles closer than the northern pad. The launch was scheduled for 6:36:36PM EST and as the sun went down the haze cleared up a bit and it offered a nice off angle light source behind and to the left of the viewing area. I was able to take this photo at approximately T+5 seconds.
If I ever get the chance to do it again I would pay the cost of renting the Canon 400mm f/2.8L telephoto lens to use with the teleconverter. I would get the same focal length but would have an aperture large enough to let my camera auto focus and could have used a lower ISO for less noise in the digital image. I had a very hard time manually focusing with the viewfinder so dark from the small aperture and the setting sun and the circular polarizer. If I did get stuck manually focusing again I would at least replace the viewfinder screen in the camera with one designed for such a purpose.
There was 1 technical issue during the countdown where they werent sure if the hatch was properly sealed or not but they got it straightened out during the built-in countdown holds and there was no delay to the launch, which was nice since there was only about a 5 minute launch window and I didn’t think I could bear the heat again the next day.
There was a PA system at the viewing area so we could hear the public affairs officer doing the final countdown and everyone in the crowd started counting along with him at T-10 seconds (is it possible to resist counting down a rocket launch?). We could see the cloud of steam that rises when the main engines fire at about T-6 seconds and it completely engulfed the orbiter. AT about T+2 seconds you could see the nose of the external tank poke out above the steam and then the rest of the orbiter appeared. I have watched many shuttle launches on television but seeing the exhaust from the solid rocket boosters is completely different in person, even from 6 miles away. It’s hard to estimate how high off the ground the orbiter was when we heard the sound of the main engines firing but it was at least several hundred feet. Then a few seconds later we heard the roar of the solids which was unlike anything I have ever heard, or felt. You could feel the sound in your chest and it was louder and more powerful than any base at any concert or club I’ve been too. It was simply amazing.
With a pair of Canon 8×23 binoculars I was able to track the orbiter fairly easily and saw the solids separate at about T+124 seconds. I looked away for an instant to see what the solids looked like without the binoculars and was never able to reaquire the orbiter. By this time all that you could see was an extremely bright dot in the sky that was getting fainter as time went by.
During the ascent several pieces of foam broke off the external tank and cause a gouge in the heat shield on the underside of the orbiter. NASA officials currently believe that it won’t present any danger to the orbiter during re-entry.
It was an amazing experience that I will remember for a lifetime and I even ended up with a great photograph which will find its way onto my wall at some point.