We’ve been back since last Friday from our trip to Florida to see the launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour for its STS-127 mission. A week ago at this time, on Tuesday night, we were getting ready to leave for Kennedy Space Center. Fueling of the external tank was supposed to start at 8pm that evening, but there was a tremendous thunder storm over central Florida that delayed the activities. Nevertheless, we left our hotel in Kissimmee at 9pm to head for Kennedy Space Center in a torrential downpour.
It was by far the worst thunder storm I had ever seen, with lightning every few seconds. It was about a 90 minute drive and we saw hundreds of huge bolts of lightning that spanned large parts of the sky. It was quite something to watch, but meanwhile fueling had still not started. At 10:30pm we arrived at Kennedy Space Center and were surprised that we could just drive right into the parking lot without getting our vehicle placard checked. The information we had received with our Launch Transportation Tickets to see the shuttle launch from the NASA causeway made it sound like the placard was the most important thing, or you wouldn’t be able to enter the grounds. It turned out that we were there just before the place was locked down, and hundreds of cars were already at the parking lot. Most of them were people without Launch Transportation Tickets and vehicle placards wanting to view the launch from Kennedy Space Center, which is the closest place to watch a launch after the NASA causeway, albeit it being an obstructed view.
Most of the cars had sleeping people in them. Some people in trucks had mattresses in the back with sleeping children. We parked our car and walked to the entrance to see what was going on. There a couple of hundred people were sitting and standing in line for the park to open at 11pm, but it was still lightning and it was now almost 3 hours after fueling was supposed to start. At a few minutes before 11pm the storm stopped and people cheered as we learned that fueling operations had begun, but still 6-and-a-half hours before lift-off from that point. We headed back to our car as the entrance to KSC opened and people started buying tickets. Many more cars were arriving and touring buses too. We tried to sleep in our car for a few hours, until shortly before 1am when the bad news came.
I received a tweet on my phone from SpaceflightNow at about 12:57am that said: “A leak has reoccurred in the gaseous hydrogen venting system between the launch pad and space shuttle Endeavour, NASA confirms.”
We left our car and headed for the KSC to find out if it was true. People were still pouring inside with their folding chairs and huge bags full of stuff to watch the launch (many people were getting inside with large backpacks too, even though backpacks of any size are supposed to be strictly forbidden). I asked one of the security guys if the launch had been scrubbed, but he had not heard of a leak. We walked across the central plaza which was packed with people walking around to see the exhibits and having ice cream and drinks. It was a bit surreal to be there in the middle of the night with everything open as if it’s normal. It was clear that most people there had not heard of the new leak yet. We walked to the Launch Status Center in the back of the park to see if there was anyone there, and sure enough it was packed with people and someone from NASA was just finishing the 1am mission status briefing.
These briefings are really great. We had attended one the day before when visiting Kennedy Space Center and were told all about the shuttle launch and the upcoming launch of LRO and LCROSS as they showed live feeds from security cameras from places like the launch pad, inside the Vehicle Assembly Building and even inside the shuttle bay of Discovery, which was being prepared for STS-128.
People were just leaving the briefing as we arrived and I asked someone if they had talked about the leak. The man didn’t know what I was talking about, but suddenly a NASA guy came in and told everyone about the leak, but the launch had not been scrubbed at this time. We sat down on a bench to await further information as we watched NASA TV on two large screens with live views of the launch pad.
We sat there for about an hour, while the guy that had done the 1am briefing stayed to explain things we saw on the screen and answer any questions from people. I had read a lot of tips online about viewing a launch but I hadn’t read about this great briefing area.
At 1:56am the bad news came that the launch had actually been scrubbed, so no launch for us. We walked back to the entrance, but there were still a lot of people walking around the attractions and the plaza oblivious of the fact that they were there for nothing as the launched had just been scrubbed. I thought it was a bit weird that they didn’t announce these sort of things throughout the park to the thousands of people there. When we got to our car a lot of people were leaving, so many had obviously heard the news by then. I wonder how many people were still unaware sleeping in their car.
It wasn’t too bad leaving the space coast and driving back to Orlando. We were only in a short jam getting from the 405 onto the 407. We were of course very disappointed about not seeing the launch, but I still thought it was a great experience to be at Kennedy Space Center in the middle of the night. We drove back to Chicago the next day.
The next launch attempt for STS-127 will be on July 11th.