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Tips for viewing a shuttle launch from the causeway

Posted on January 4th 2010 by Amy in Space, Travel

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?

Rockslide leads to BEARS!

Posted on November 24th 2009 by Arthur in Life in America, Nature, Travel

On our drive back from Florida last week we were happily driving through the smoky mountains in North Carolina on Interstate 40 when we saw one of those signs flashing that tell you to listen to an AM frequency for an important traffic message. From the radio we learned that a rock slide about 20 miles in front of us was blocking the highway! Travelers were urged to drive back to Asheville and take Route 26 to Kingsport and then Route 80 to Knoxville. OMG, that’s a 150 mile detour!

Looking at the map we noticed that we could also get off at the next exit and drive through Great Smoky Mountains National Park to get to the 80. That sounded like a lot more fun than 150 miles more highway.

Great Smoky Mountains NP (29)
The Great Smoky Mountains get their name from the natural fog that often hangs over the range. The fog is the result of warm humid air from the Gulf of Mexico that cools rapidly in the higher elevations of the Appalachian Mountains.

So we got off the highway and drove along a winding road through the towns of Maggie Valley (very cute) and Cherokee (wow, huge casinos!) toward the park. At Oconaluftee visitor center we made a short stop to look at the shop and get a stamp for my National Parks Passport.

My National Parks Passport with my stamp from Great Smoky Mountains National Park
My National Parks Passport with my new stamp

Half-way through the park we stopped at a look-out point on the pass where the Appalachian Trail crosses the road. We had some great views of the smokies and even saw a couple of birds like this American Robin and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. We also walked a tiny part of the Appalachian Trail, but only for a few hundred yards because it was getting dark. Maybe once we’ll walk the whole 2,178 miles.

Great Smoky Mountains NP (16)

Great Smoky Mountains NP (14)

Then, when least expected, it happened. We were driving down the mountain when all of a sudden there were a bunch of cars stopped on the side of a road. About a dozen people were outside their cars looking down at something. We got out of our car too and saw an American Black Bear walking through the forest. Whoa! It was the first wild bear we’d ever seen!

Here’s a neat video that Amy took:

A few miles down the road we encountered another group of people standing on the side of the road. We got out again and saw a second bear! This one was a bit larger and much closer to the road. At first we were looking into the distance and couldn’t find it, but then all of a sudden we noticed it was foraging through the leaves only about 30 feet away from us below the road! The bear only looked up every 30 seconds or so, to make sure we weren’t doing anything stupid, and then went on with his business.

Great Smoky Mountains NP (28)

Great Smoky Mountains NP (27)

The bears were both so relaxed, we figured they are used to tourists standing nearby … as long as they stay on the road. The first bear was on an inclined piece of land where the road curved. There were cars stopped at the top and we could also see some cars and people below staring at the bear. At one point we noticed that a man from down below had walked toward the bear in the forest and was hiding behind a tree to take pictures. The man was only about 30 feet away! When the man made a noise the bear looked up and she did not like the human in her territory. The man slowly backed up and managed to get back to the car. What an idiot. He must not watch The Colbert Report or he would have known that bears are the #1 Threat to America. 😉

Lift off!

Posted on November 16th 2009 by Arthur in Space, Travel

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.

STS-129 Atlantis on Pad 39a (200911150015HQ)
(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.

STS-129 Crew Walk Out (200911160001HQ)
(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 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.


Waiting for the shuttle launch, take two

Posted on November 15th 2009 by Arthur in Space, Travel

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! 😉

Launch Status building at Kennedy Space Center
Me at the Launch Status building inside Kennedy Space Center this afternoon,
where we got an update on Shuttle Atlantis and upcoming missions

Rocky Mountain NP, 5 years ago

Posted on September 10th 2009 by Arthur in Travel

Five years ago today we were in Estes Park on our roadtrip to Colorado and the Rocky Mountains. We stayed in a cottage at Tiny Town (now apparently called Trout Haven Ranch Cabins) and spent the day in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Tiny Town Cottages, Estes Park CO
Tiny Town Cottages, Estes Park

Chasm Falls
Chasm Falls on Fall River Road

Stellar's Jay
A Stellar’s Jay

View from Trail Ridge Road
View from Trail Ridge Road

Alpine Visitor Center
Alpine Visitor Center

Elk seen from Alpine Visitor Center
Herd of elk seen from Alpine Visitor Center

Drop on leaf

Rocky Mountain National Park

On our drive back to Estes Park it suddenly started snowing. The sky darkened while the mountains were still illuminated from the low sun …

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Putting a new field guide to good use

Posted on July 10th 2009 by Amy in Nature, Travel

On the drive home from Florida last month, we stopped at the Jackson County Waterfowl Area in Alabama. While we were hoping for birds, we mostly saw lots of skittish turtles who jumped into the water even when we approached from hundreds of feet away.

We also saw this lovely dragonfly.

Male Widow Skimmer

It’s a Male Widow Skimmer. I wouldn’t have known this if it wasn’t for our trusty brand new field guide I picked up just a few days before: Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. Thank you, field guide.

Birding at Viera Wetlands

Posted on June 25th 2009 by Arthur in Birds, Travel

While we were waiting for the shuttle launch at the Space Coast last week, we did some birding at Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera and saw lots of different birds including 6 lifers. We also wanted to go to Merrit Island National Wildlife Refuge, but that place was locked down by NASA for security reasons until the shuttle would be launched (or scrubbed), so we went to Viera wetlands twice.

Entrance sign for Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera
Entrance of Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera

The 35-acre wetlands are actually a water reclamation facility for Brevard County, but the area has been perfectly set up for birding, with one-way roads for driving birders (maximum speed 10 mph) and two observation decks. The last time we visited a similar place was at the sewege ponds at Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt, but that place was not set up for birding at all. We expected something similar, but Viera Wetlands was very different and more like a nature reserve than a government facility.

Map of Viera wetlands
Map of Viera wetlands

Roads at Viera wetlands

Overview of Viera wetlands

Viera wetlands

We made the mistake on our first visit to keep the windows open the entire time, resulting in literally hundreds of mosquitoes getting in our car. Later that day we let out at least 50 of them while driving by opening our window occassionally. We thought we had gotten rid of most of them, but after leaving our car parked somewhere for 15 minutes, baking in the sun, we found the dashboard, our seats and the floor were covered in dead ones. So on our second visit to the wetlands we decided to keep the windows closed and only open our doors once in a while to get out or take pictures. This was a much better experience.

American Alligator at Viera Wetlands

Alligator signA sign at the entrance read: This is alligator mating season and alligators are more aggressive at this time of year. Please stay on the roadway and stay away from water for your safety, but they were quite calm and not so loud.

Among the many birds we saw were Summer Tanager, Glossy Ibis, Sandhill Crane, Pied-billed Grebe, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Green Heron, Loggerhead Shrike, Anhinga, Osprey, Limpkin, Least Bittern, Crested Caracar, Green Heron, Roseate Spoonbill and Tricolored Heron.

Great White Egret
Great Egret

Black-bellied Whistling Duck
Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Northern Mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird

Green Heron
Green Heron

White Ibis
White Ibis

By far the coolest bird we saw was this Crested Caracara, the symbol of the wetlands and our best lifer of the trip. Both days we were there the Caracara was perched on the same tree.

Crested Caracara
Crested Caracara

Unfortunately the bird was back lit both times we were there, so we didn’t get a great look at him. Here’s a much better picture:

Crested Caracara
Crested Caracara by Shadow Hunter

Our midnight adventure at Kennedy Space Center for the failed launch attempt of STS-127

Posted on June 23rd 2009 by Arthur in Space, Travel

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.

Kennedy Space Center
Photo by papillion_1 (from another launch)

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.

STS-126 Space Shuttle Endeavour Launch
Photo by astronomicalfamily

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.

Ready for Lift-off

Posted on June 15th 2009 by Arthur in Space, Travel

We’re ready for the launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour, which is now scheduled for Wednesday morning at 5:40am. We spent today at Kennedy Space Center and had a great time. It was one of the bus drivers who told us this afternoon that they just decided to give the shuttle another try on Wednesday. The Atlas 5 rocket with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been pushed back to Thursday.

Our new arrival time at KSC, which is the absolute latest that we are allowed to be there, is 12:30am! We asked at Guest Services how long we should allow for driving from Orlando and she informed us 4 hours as roads will be packed with people coming to see the launch, even that early in the morning! OMG, so we’ll be leaving our hotel some time around 8:30 in the evening!

Space Shuttle Explorer
Me in front of Space Shuttle Explorer, a full-scale replica of an orbiter at KSC

No Launch For You

Posted on June 13th 2009 by Arthur in Space, Travel

We got up at 12:30am this morning to head to Kennedy Space Center for the scheduled launch of STS-127. Right after getting up I checked my phone for any tweets from SpaceflightNow for the last updates and it all looked good; the last one said that fueling was going smoothly and the clock continued counting down toward a liftoff at 7:17am. I proceeded to brush my teeth when all of a sudden a new message came in:

NASA has just called a scrub for today. A leak has developed while fueling space shuttle Endeavour. A news conference is planned overnight.

So no launch today. 🙁

Space Shuttle Endeavour on Launch Pad 39A © NASA

We stayed up to see the press conference at 1:45. It took more than a half hour for any news media to pick up the cancelled launch. Even the homepage of wasn’t updated for an hour with the news. Thanks to Twitter we knew about the cancellation before we got in our car and headed for the space center. Thank you Twitter! 🙂

I had read that Endeavour had a window of only 3 days (June 13th through 15th) because of the Atlas 5 rocket that was to launch on June 17th to bring two new satellites to the moon. In the overnight press conference they said that it will take at least 4 days to fix the leak, so we thought that’s it; no shuttle launch this month. But then, to our surprise, they mentioned in the press conference the possibility of delaying the Atlas 5 mission and letting Endeavour go first. They even said that if the Atlas 5 rocket goes first, and it launches on the 17th, then Endeavour’s still has one chance on the 20th (it takes 2 days to reset equipment between launches). Mission managers are now planning to meet tomorrow at 2pm to examine the repair plans and determine the new launch date.

We spent the day birding at the Space Coast and then drove to Orlando. We’re going to wait for the results of tomorrow’s meeting and then decide what to do. If Endeavour’s next launch attempt is on Wednesday then we will wait for that. But if the moon mission goes first and they still want to try the shuttle on Saturday June 20th then we may not wait for that and drive back. Or maybe we’ll stay and watch the Atlas 5 launch, although we don’t have tickets for that launch so it would be from far away.

We’re disappointed about the scrubbed launch but we knew this could happen. There are still 7 more shuttle missions planned until the end of next year so if we don’t see this one go up we have a few more chances. At least we had a great taste of summer, with 90+oF here every day. Whatever happens we plan to spend the day at Kennedy Space Center on Monday and use part of our launch viewing tickets that way. I’m really looking forward to that. 🙂