SpaceX released this animated video of their new Falcon Heavy rocket that will, in a few years, take American astronauts into space again. Check out how the three boosters are intended to fly themselves back to the launch pad. Very cool! I look forward to seeing the first test flight later this year and am definitely going to watch this thing go up at the Cape.
Now that we live a mere one hour from Kennedy Space Center, we had a chance to see the launch and landing of Atlantis STS 135, the final space shuttle mission. This was our second shuttle launch after seeing STS 129 from the NASA Causeway in June 2009.
This time we drove to Titusville to try and find a place near Space View Park. The launch was scheduled for 11:30am, so we thought leaving home at 2:00am would give us plenty of time to find a good place. However, when we arrived at 3:00am the town was already extremely crowded. We found a parking spot for $30 and walked toward the Indian River with our bags and chairs. We were planning to put down our chairs in the little park just south of Wachovia Bank, but this was already completely packed with people. This whole area of Titusville had been turned into an improvised campground, with small tents taking up every available space. We set up our chairs on the sidewalk, right next to a guy sleeping in a hammock tied to a street sign.
We went back to our car to get some sleep. When we woke up it was light and thousands more people were now sitting everywhere on sidewalks and streets. We were lucky to find our chairs still there. Among all these people we sat for several hours as the countdown continued.
There was only a 30% chance all day that weather would permit the launch to continue and cloud cover was too thick for most of the morning. Fortunately, shortly before lift off the sky cleared up and the shuttle was go for launch. There was a small scare when we heard from a radio behind us at T-31 seconds that there may be a malfunction, but this was quickly resolved and shuttle Atlantis lifted off at 11:29am. A crowd of nearly one million people on the Space Coast cheered as the four astronauts blasted into the sky. We had a nice view, but not as good as from the NASA Causeway two years earlier. Nevertheless it was incredible to see the final space shuttle take off.
Two weeks later, on July 21st, we headed back to Titusville to try and see the landing. This was scheduled for 5:57am, or a half hour before sunrise, so we were unsure if we would be able to see anything in the dark. We’d never seen a shuttle landing before and this was our only chance, so we had to try. We arrived at Space View Park at 5:00am and there were a few hundred people there. Several TV crews had set up their cameras and we could see thousands of people on the Max Brewer Bridge.
A few minutes before landing we heard an extremely loud “BOOM BOOM”. I knew we were going to hear the sonic boom, but I had no idea it would be that loud!! Shortly after that we heard people cheer and we could see the shadow of the shuttle fly across Merritt Island against the pre-dawn sky. We had a great view considering the darkness and were both very happy to have seen this historic journey from beginning to end.
For more STS 135 Atlantis pictures see The Big Picture.
There are only five more Space Shuttle missions before the program is retired. We had a great time viewing the launch of STS-129 in mid-November. We planned our schedule by using information provided to us by NASA that accompanied our tickets, and reading a few trip reports made by other shuttle fans. Here are my tips for making the most out of viewing a shuttle launch from the causeway.
Wear shoes, not sandals. I love my Tevas and wear them almost exclusively in the spring, summer and fall. They were the only shoes I brought with me during a holiday in India and they were all I needed. They were the only shoes I brought to Florida and were fine everywhere except the causeway. The brittle dry grass hurt my feet, I was bitten on the top of my foot and middle toe by something within two minutes of arriving and cut my heel on a sharp rock in the grass.
Owie dry grass with hidden dangers.
The literature that accompanied our tickets said that backpacks and food were prohibited at the causeway. We saw tons of people with both monster backpacks and buffets of food at the causeway. Just saying.
We had read that in case of a launch cancellation or postponement after ticket-holders got on the bus to the causeway, one would have to purchase a new causeway ticket. For this reason we thought it would be a good idea to wait until as late as possible to get on one of the causeway buses. But the tickets are relinquished when you get in line, not when you get on the bus. Plus, as soon as you get in line you receive a voucher, shown below, which can be redeemed for a ticket once you return to KSC. We really didn’t understand how things would work in the event of a canceled launch after boarding the bus, and we were anxious about it. Hopefully this info will save someone reading this the same anxiety. We waited for about 45 minutes to get on a bus and we were among the last brought to the causeway, having to sit farther away than many others who had gotten in line and boarded buses much earlier. If we were going to do this again, we would get on the bus as soon as possible and wait out at the causeway. Especially if the chances for launch are as good as they were for STS-129 that day – 70% for go.
Voucher in case of launch cancellation after bus boarding.
Look at the launch – especially if it’s your first time. When we got back in the bus after the launch I was surprised how many people were showing each other the videos and photos they took of the launch. Even if you have professional equipment, from your causeway viewing site your video or photos will never be as good as what NASA provides. Watch the launch, enjoy the experience, and watch the professional videos later.
Bring your best optics. If you have a scope, bring it.
The launch was sweet to see through the scope.
Do a little wildlife watching while you’re waiting. Especially if you’ve traveled a great distance to view the launch, the wildlife in Florida probably has some different flora and fauna on offer than you’re used to at home. We watched the birds, of course, including an Osprey who had a very nice view from a perch about halfway between us and the shuttle. While waiting on the bus to return to KSC, we were treated to a few dolphin sightings.
While at KSC, before boarding the bus to the causeway, there are a lot of activities available. On the morning of our launch, they were even running bus tours to the gantry and Saturn V building. Many attractions were open as soon as we were able to get inside, from 6:00AM or so. During our previous launch-viewing attempt, attractions and shops were open in the middle of the night! KSC status updates are usually interesting and they were running NASA TV in the astronaut experience building, where we got to watch the astronauts boarding the shuttle as it was happening.
When looking for a place to sit on the causeway, you will probably want to find a spot where you can see the shuttle unobstructed by the small mangrove islands that lay in the water between the causeway and the launch pad. For this reason we walked further from the shuttle itself when we got off the bus. We found a prime viewing spot and were soon surrounded by other viewers. We were, however, exactly between two loudspeakers, so we had a hard time hearing the announcements. An unobstructed spot as close as possible to a speaker would have been a better choice. On the other hand, we were getting updates from SpaceFlightNow via Twitter while we were waiting, which sometimes informed us of what was going on before the info came over the loudspeakers.
Our view of the launch pad between mangrove islands.
If we had to do it all again, I don’t think we would lug all of our stuff around all morning. We got to KSC very early and had an awesome parking spot. Still we carried our spotting scope, cameras, binoculars and lawn chairs around with us from building to building until we got on the bus. If you keep an eye on the crowds and don’t wait until too late, you should be able to leave your causeway stuff in your car until you want to get on the bus. Get a handstamp as you exit so you can come back in again.
Finally, tickets for the next launch go on sale this Wednesday. We had some drama obtaining our tickets, but eventually calling is what worked for us. If you’re going to try online, why not try calling for tickets at the same time?
Space Shuttle Atlantis just landed safely back at Kennedy Space Center. I wish we could have been there to witness it. On our visit to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge last week we learned that a great place to watch the landing is from the park’s visitor center, which lies just at the beginning of the nearly 3 mile long runway. You must know exactly when to look though, as you won’t be able to see the shuttle coming and it’ll fly right overhead.
Here’s a great video compilation of the STS-129 launch, compiled by NASA’s Systems Engineering & Integration (via Facebook):
We arrived at Kennedy Space Center at 6:00am this morning and were surprised to find all the attractions and exhibits already open to the public. They were even doing bus tours until 8:45am! We sat down in the Launch Status building and later moved to the Astronaut Encounter building to watch live programming from NASA tv while we waited. KSC does such an excellent job accommodating launch guests; back in June during the night launch everything was open in the middle of the night.
(Photo © NASA) View of Shuttle Atlantis on Pad 39A this morning
At 9:15am we had our ‘breakfast with an astronaut’ in the Early Space Exploration building. There was a HUGE line of people and the doors opened a bit late at 9:30am. The breakfast was held in a large room with round tables and about (I guess) 200 people were there to have breakfast. There were eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy, sweets and fruit. After a little while astronaut Frederick D. Gregory came out and held a little talk about today’s mission and the new Constellation program before taking some questions from the audience. It was a fun event to attend.
(Photo © NASA) At the Astronaut Encounter we watched live NASA tv and saw the astronauts arrive at the shuttle in the Astrovan and then getting suited up in the White Room.
Buses to the NASA Causeway for those with causeway tickets started going at 11:30am. We headed to the buses around this time and were surprised that we were probably among the last 10% of causeway people to get on a bus. Many visitors remained at KSC to view the launch from there. Watching from the KSC is a restricted view (you only see the shuttle above the trees after it has left the pad) but bleachers and large screens had been set up and hundreds of people were already camping out on the grass.
Our bus drove the 15 minutes to the causeway where about 150 buses were parked three rows deep. The viewing area was HUGE. Being among the last to arrive there I thought we might have had to sit behind other people, but there was still a few hundred yards of unused space right by the water. At some points the view was slightly obstructed from small islands in the Banana River, so we walked along the water away from the bus until we found the perfect spot to set up our two chairs and spotting scope that we had been lugging along all morning.
View of the part of the causeway where we were sitting; this went on and on into the distance with more than 150 buses on the left
In the next half hour many more people arrived (also on non-NASA buses) and it quickly filled up behind us. We had a good place. I was really amazed of the great view we had. We sat 7 miles away and I thought the Shuttle would be a small speck in the distance, but through the scope I could even read the word “Atlantis” on the wing! There is one closer viewing area at the Saturn V building, which is 3 1/2 miles away … but our bus driver told us that from that angle the shuttle is hidden behind the Rotating Service Structure, so we had the best view of the orbiter on the pad.
People behind us
Commentary from NASA tv was playing on the speakers so we could hear what was going on. I was also getting tweets from Spaceflightnow.com. All morning there was a thick layer of clouds above Cape Canaveral and chance of weather constraints prohibiting flight were 30%, but as the morning progressed the clouds slowly moved away and at launch time weather was good. Through the scope I could clearly see the removal of the walkway and beanie cap after the 9-minute hold, but I think I was the only one in our vicinity witnessing this as most people just had small binoculars.
At T-minus 16 seconds the Sound Surpression System is activated and 300,000 gallons of water are poured onto the launch pad to surpress the decibels from damaging the orbiter. I could see all the water clearly through the scope as well as the sparks from the burn ignitors to start the main engine.
At 2:28:10pm the shuttle lifted off the pad.
(Photo © NASA) View from the press area with the countdown clock
Here’s an HD video of the launch from NASA:
It was a tremendous sight. A huge cloud, then the shuttle became visible with its extremely bright engine flames below and about 40 seconds after lift-off the sound wave hit us. I followed the shuttle up with the scope. Two minutes and 10 seconds into the flight the two solid rocket boosters were jettisoned and I could see this clearly through the scope as well. Everyone around me was already packing up as they could no longer see the shuttle, but I was seeing the shuttle and both solid rocket boosters fall down. A few seconds later I lost sight of the shuttle but I could still see the two rockets fall down for about 20 seconds until I lost them in the clouds. Wow.
A few minutes later a woman came on the intercom and dryly announced: “A huge dark cloud of hydrochloric acid, which you can see above the launch pad, is blowing in our direction. Please move to your bus immediately.” … Holy crap! We quickly got our stuff together and headed for our bus. The papers for the launch had a disclaimer about the risks of attending a launch (among which thunder storms and the fact that droplets of hydrochloric acid that appear after launch can cause some mild skin irritation). As far as we know everyone made it to their bus and no tourists were killed by the acid. 😉
It took about 20 minutes until our bus left (we saw two dolphins swim by in the meantime!) and we got back to the KSC about 15 minutes later. It was incredibly busy at the Space Shop as we picked out some souvenirs and then headed to the car. It wasn’t very bad to get out of the area and we were in a short traffic jam for only a few minutes.
We are once again at the Space Coast in Florida to try and see a shuttle launch. After two days of driving over 1,000 miles we arrived at our hotel in Titusville last night. Today we spent the morning at Viera Wetlands (two new lifers: American Bittern and Green-winged Teal!) and the afternoon at Kennedy Space Center, where we saw Space Shuttle Atlantis on launch pad 39A.
The launch is scheduled for tomorrow at 2:28pm and, like last time, we have launch transportation tickets to bring us to the NASA causeway. This is our second try to see a launch after our failed attempt in June.
At least the weather is MUCH better now, less hot and less mosquitoes than in June. It’s a pleasant 80°F all week. Keep your fingers crossed for good weather conditions tomorrow and no more leaking fuel tanks or other technical problems. We finally want to see this thing go up! 😉
Me at the Launch Status building inside Kennedy Space Center this afternoon,
where we got an update on Shuttle Atlantis and upcoming missions
Yesterday morning at 8:00am CT launch viewing ticket for the next Space Shuttle launch went on sale. We tried this back in June when I managed to get causeway tickets but we drove to Florida just to find out that STS-127 had been scrubbed. For so long I’ve wanted to see a Space Shuttle launch, and with only six more launches left (the last Space Shuttle mission is in September 2010) we decided to try again for the next one on November 16th.
The NASA causeway is the best place to view a launch. It’s still six miles from the launch pad, but it’s an unobstructed view and it’s the closest they let regular people watch (the press and NASA people get to watch from three miles away). The number of tickets is limited and they are known to sell out fast. We were ready yesterday morning refreshing the order page on the Kennedy Space Center website a few minutes before 8:00am. On my screen I had a window open with an atomic clock to know exactly what time it was. At 7:59:50am the “Buy” button appeared on the order page. Amy and I, each on our own computer, immediately tried to buy two tickets, but no luck. It immediately said “Sold Out”.
Oh no, how can these tickets be sold out in a matter of seconds? We didn’t believe this and figured there must be a problem with the website. For the next few minutes we kept refreshing the page and trying to add the tickets to our shopping cart, but each time we got “Sold Out” . Then all of a sudden I got through and got a form to enter my details. Whoo-hoo! A clock at the top of the page started counting down; you have 8 minutes to complete the order and then the tickets will be made available to other people again. I had already put all my address and payment details in a Notepad so all I had to do was paste them into the form. When I was done and clicked the button to confirm my order I suddenly got the “Sold Out” error. Drats!
By this time it was about 8:10am and I knew for sure now that there was a problem with the website. After all, I should have had 8 minutes to complete the order! I decided to try and give them a call while Amy continued to refresh the page on her computer. I kept getting a busy signal for about 10 minutes and then finally got through. I pressed “2” for information about Shuttle launches, then “3” to order tickets only to be told that they’re experiencing a high volume of calls right now and please try again later. What? I finally got through and then they hang up on me? I hung up and tried dialing again and again and again. Each time it was busy and every 20 tries or so I got through but was hung up again.
At 8:30am or so the website homepage finally said that all tickets were sold out and I still hadn’t been able to talk to anyone on the phone. I found a Tweet from someone that said “DO NOT TRY the website. Call them instead.” and on the Facebook page of Kennedy Space Center some people were having a discussion about the website problem and some said they had just been able to order tickets by phone. So I didn’t want to give up.
I figured out that after being told to hang up I could press “0” to return to the main menu and try it again without having to dial again. Hey, that was handy. I went through this maybe fifty times: 2, 3 .. told to hang up .. 0, 2, 3 … told to hang up .. 0, 2, 3 … etc. FINALLY I got through and was put on hold. I was going to speak to the next available rep. By this time it was 8:45am and I didn’t have any hope that tickets were still available, but at the very least I wanted to find out if my online order from earlier had gone through.
After 5 minutes of waiting I finally got to speak to someone. She said that they still had tickets left! But only “dine with an astronaut” tickets. These tickets are $20 more expensive and you get to have breakfast with a real astronaut in the morning before you take the bus to the causeway to see the launch. Well, I didn’t have to think twice about that! Of course, gimme two of those! I gave all my details over the phone and that was it.
Wow, that was a stressful one hour of trying to get these tickets yesterday morning. I never received a confirmation by email yesterday, so this morning I called them again (got through right away this time) and they confirmed that we’re in the system and the tickets will be mailed to us on November 2nd. I’m so looking forward to going to Florida again and really hope the launch won’t be scrubbed this time. Keep your fingers crossed!
Moon Publicity is selling 44 regions of the visible side of the moon to place huge letter advertising to be created with rovers. Robots will be used to create several small ridges in the lunar dust over large areas that capture shadows and shape them to form logos, domains names or memorials. That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen!
This must be a prank. It would just be a dumb idea because: 1. the moon has an uneven surface, so good luck making straight letters; 2. it would cost billions of dollars to send up enough robots to finish the job, 3. It would take ages to finish it (Spirit and Opportunity have been on Mars for 6 years and have only traveled a combined 15 miles, and the diameter of the moon is 3,474 miles), 4. the letters would be too small and faint to read from Earth and 5. it would ruin the moon forever … so many people would be against it that I doubt any sensible company would be willing to spend billions on this advertising stunt.
I got a big kick out of reading this placard in one of the telescope exhibits at the Adler Planetarium during our visit there last week. Our old home town has several great museums and we visited them all, including the outstanding Boerhaave.
Yesterday we spent the day in Chicago to visit the Adler Planetarium and see legendary Apollo and Gemini astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell at a special event organized by the museum. We had a great time and even got to shortly meet Buzz Aldrin in the end as he signed our copy of his new autobiography Magnificent Desolation.
Poster for the Apollo 11 Celebration at Adler Planetarium with the famous picture of Buzz Aldrin on the moon with Neil Armstrong and the lunar module reflected in his visor
We took the 7:38am train from Round Lake Beach and arrived at Chicago’s Union Station at 8:55. Here we took bus 130 to the Museum Campus where we spent the rest of the morning and better part of the afternoon at the Adler Planetarium. The last time we had been here was about 10 years ago, and a lot of the exhibits had changed since. There’s a nice new exhibit about the Apollo program called Shoot for the Moon that tells the story of astronaut Jim Lovell’s life and career using artifacts from his personal collection. It even includes the fully-restored Gemini 12 spacecraft flown by Captain Lovell and Buzz Aldrin in 1966, which is on long-term loan from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.
Jim Lovell’s helmet and glove. Note the glove has a little booklet attached to it with instructions about the extravehicular activities the astronaut was supposed to perform on the moon, but unfortunately it was never used because Apollo 13 never made it to the moon
Shoot for the Moon was closed for the public for a short time in the morning and in the afternoon as Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell were visiting. We did not get to see them there, but that was okay as we were going to see them in the evening anyway. After the museum we walked to Shedd Aquarium and took a Shoreline Sightseeing water taxi to Navy Pier where we had dinner at Capi’s Italian Kitchen.
The special event with the astronauts took place starting at 7pm at the Thorne Auditorium of Northwestern University, just north of Navy Pier. We walked there and there was already a huge line outside when we arrived at 6:15pm. Unfortunately it was not allowed to take pictures during the interview but everyone started to take pictures when it was over so we quickly took this one:
From left: moderator Craig Nelson, Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell
The two astronauts were on stage talking about their experiences in the Gemini and Apollo programs. They received a huge applause from the 800 people in the auditorium when they arrived and a standing ovation when they left. The interview was moderated by author Craig Nelson (Rocket Men) and lasted about 90 minutes. Questions that had been gathered from the audience were read and answered too.
It was wonderful to see the two American heroes in person and afterward Buzz Aldrin was available to sign his new book Magnificent Desolation.
The interview ended at about 8:30pm and people poured out of the auditorium to stand in line for Buzz’s book signing in the hall, where a table had been set up. I think that they underestimated the number of people interested in the signing as it was a bit of a chaos to get everyone organized into an orderly line, which eventually extended to well outside onto the street. We were toward the end of the line and people there were getting worried that it would take hours to get through the line and that Buzz may not stay that long. A couple of the organizers came outside to reassure people that Buzz knew how long the line was and that he personally guaranteed that everyone who wanted to get a signature would get one, even if you have multiple books to sign. That was nice!
It actually went pretty fast and within an hour we were there. Buzz was signing very quickly and was not doing any personalizing. When it was my turn I thanked him profoundly and told him what an honor it was. He looked up, smiled at me and moved on to the next book. He is without a doubt the coolest person I have ever met in person. He was the second person to walk on the moon, which is probably the highest achievement of mankind.
Here I am proudly displaying my signed book before we ran to catch our train: