Sunday, June 26, 2011

on space shuttles and Space Mountain

Ok folks, let's recap.

First off, I need to recommend that everyone begin carrying pocket-sized notebooks around, because mine is now officially my best friend.  It's even gained VIP status as part of the "things to grab walking out the door" pile with my sunglasses/chapstick/cell phone/keys/Harry Potter book.  (That last one is only sort of a joke.  The last movie is only three weeks away, people!)  Not only does carrying a tiny Moleskine make me feel like an artsy hipster-type, but it also ensures that I don't lose my grocery list, or forget what was going on in my brain on May 16th.  What happened on that day, you ask?  Well, May 16th is when this went down:

Not my picture--my camera's not this good!
And this:

This one IS mine.  You can tell because I squealed when I took it.

So the STS-134 Endeavor shuttle launch--the second-to-last American manned space launch--was originally scheduled for April 29th.  On April 28th, Ricky mentioned in passing to me that he had read about the launch in the news and they were predicting that over 700,000 people would show up to see it.  Our conversation went something like "Wow!  I didn't know we were so close to the last launch."  "We'll have to see when the last one is.  Maybe we can go." "I'm sure it won't be for another year or so.  I'll check."

And so I did.  When I got into work a few days later, I discovered that the STS-134 launch had been scrubbed due to mechanical issues only a couples hours before launch time (blastoff?) and was postponed for two weeks, putting the launch date right after Ricky would finish finals and before his internship in Miami.  Then I discovered that the STS-135 launch (the last one ever!) was scheduled for late June, which would be in the middle of Ricky's internship and which we wouldn't be able to work around.  After some excellent spontaneity on my part, and overjoyed agreement on Ricky's ("Aren't you glad you married someone as fun as me?" I boasted), I took the scheduled day off work and we decided to drive the four hours up to Titusville, FL.  Obviously, we wouldn't be able to get tickets for the "official" viewing sites so close to the launch date, but the little city across the river from the launchpad--Titusville!--has parks up and down the river where people can watch the launches.

I was still a little nervous about the 700,000 figure--there would be less people that would actually show up this time, of course, because most of people that had flown in from all over the country for the April 29th launch date wouldn't be able to turn around so quickly and come back.  Nevertheless, Ricky and I planned to get to the riverside at least 12 hours before the 8:56:28 a.m. arrival time, because we are geniuses...and also because we fought a crowd of two million people when we went to Obama's inauguration and had no desire to do so again.  Ever. :)

Sunday the 15th had me so excited I could barely make it through Nursery.  I went barreling around the apartment when we got home, making sure we had the tent and the binoculars and the camp chairs and the Wheat Thins and the iPods and the GPS and the Mapquest directions in case the GPS failed and the Disney passes (!) and the extra food laid out for the very cross-looking cat.

Ricky is either making tuna fish sandwiches here, or karate-chopping them.  Possibly both.

Robin, do you remember when we went to Rugged Wearhouse and I bought that Star Wars shirt?  SO PERFECT.


This picture is only to show you guys that I've been practicing my one-eyebrow raise.  It's still a work in progress, but you'll notice the forehead wrinkles only on one side.  That's right--be intimidated.  Also, let's have a moment of silence for my wonderful Costa Rican honeymoon sunglasses that broke three seconds after I got out of the car.  Sigh.
I couldn't help but take pictures every time I saw a sign for Titusville.

This stretch of road was gorgeous and empty.  I took at least four pictures of various signs, but you get the idea.
Ok, one more.
It was pretty bizarre when we arrived in Titusville.  The whole town looked as if nothing had been renovated or built since the beginning of the space race, and Ricky and I were a little creeped out.  Even the McDonald's looked like it had just been puked up by the 1960s.  I wish I had taken pictures, but I was too busy bugging my eyes out at how very "Twilight Zone" it all was.  Once we got closer to the river, the high-rise, modern, supposedly-better-to-view-the-launch-from hotels started appearing, and I felt less a time traveler.  

I was sure we were going to have to pay in solid gold for a parking space near the park--from everything I had read online, businesses would charge around $30 (usually more) to park in their lots on launch day.  However, because I am probably magic and totally should've gone to Hogwarts, I found a totally free curbside space right across the street from the river and made Ricky park there.  (Ricky will tell you that he found the spot and I'm just taking all the credit, but we all know how he exaggerates.)  We had planned to go to Spaceview Park only because they have the live countdown from the mission control room, but by a happy accident we wound up finding an empty stretch of riverbank only a block over from Spaceview, which was already crowded with tents and chairs and trees and people.  We decided to sacrifice the countdown audio for the better location and the squishy grass underneath our tent.  (Tree roots--don't try to sleep on them.)

The view when we arrived--we're about 12 miles away, which as close as you can get without tickets.  See the dimple in the tall bush on the left?  The launchpad is basically directly over that dip.
Ricky's more righteous than me and stayed in his church clothes ALL SUNDAY.  There are probably few things less attractive than a well-dressed man pitching a tent.  It's like James Bond meets Indiana Jones.

It's a good thing I have the dexterity to both help with the tent and take this unfocused iPod picture at the same time.

Once we had the tent and the camp chairs set up, there were a few more families that had arrived, bringing the total up to seven or eight on our stretch of riverbank.  We were nearly as close to the water as we could get without being in marsh.  It was pretty surreal looking up at the moon above the launch site and knowing that, forty years ago in the same place, people watched a shuttle begin to bridge that distance.  Ricky and I played iPod games, read books, and ate snacks until about midnight, when we fell asleep.  I slept well, surprisingly, considering I went to sleep afraid that we would wake up to dozens of people crammed into the bank in front of us, but I woke up around 5:30 to loud voices and this:

That's our setup in the foreground.  This still wasn't as many people as were crammed into Spaceview Park a block over, so we were relieved!

I also woke up to this:

That's empty bank in front of us, people!  As it turns out, everyone who showed up was very respectful of those people who had camped out all night for good spots.  Go figure!
Ricky woke up to this:

...only with a more maniacal, sleep-deprived expression.
Poor guy. ;)

SO READY FOR THIS.  We'll pretend I was looking in the right spot.  Ricky and I disagreed about where the launch site was...turns out he was right.  Notice the girl behind me re-reading the first Harry Potter book--she was from Ohio and had just gone to the HP theme park 45 minutes away in Orlando.

We didn't bring anything but our sleeping bags because we weren't expecting it to be cold in the morning, but it was!  This is Ricky, braving the elements.
Waiting the 3 1/2 hours until 9:00 was torture.  I was so excited.  I didn't even want to leave to find a bathroom after I woke up, which in hindsight was pretty ridiculous, because obviously they weren't going to launch the shuttle two hours early just because they knew I wasn't watching.  Our unaided view was pretty bad--like I mentioned above, we couldn't even see the launch site, so the binoculars were a definite must.

Kids had been playing along the riverbank for the hours up until the launch, but about 10 minutes before launchtime people started standing with the kids along the bank under the pretense of, you know, now deciding to actually watch their children.

The kids by themselves were cute, though!  Notice that they aren't even tall enough to break the horizon line.
Well, I surely hadn't come all that way and spent all night there for some tall grown-up to stand in my line of sight, so Ricky and I grabbed our chair covers and put them down on the muddy ground right by the water so we could sit without being in anyone's way.  No one said anything, because they had seen us there all night--people did, however, come up and kindly request that the other standing adults sit down so that the people behind them could see.  They did.  It was all very nice.

Like I said--right on the edge.
Horseshoe crabs!!  Only one was still alive, but I had never seen them in the wild.  We had a bunch when I worked at the SC Aquarium, but this was pretty cool.  The kids thought they were stingrays and kept poking the dead ones with sticks.  We also saw a few dolphins in the distance, so we must've been pretty close to where the river empties into the Atlantic.

You could feel the anticipation the closer it got to 8:56.  The people with smartphones were on the NASA website, watching the countdown, and one man behind us counted loudly down from ten...we didn't believe him until we saw the smoke and flames explode from around the launch site.  Again, I was looking too far to the right, so it took me a split second to find the right spot--luckily, I only barely missed the initial plumes of smoke clearing the small group of trees in front of the launchpad, but I still kick myself a bit for not listening to Ricky.  (Yeah yeah, life lesson, whatever!)

After a moment, we saw the shuttle rising, silhouetted against the flames and smoke, and it was literally the most incredible thing I've ever seen.  My heart was pounding, beating so hard for no reason other than being a part of that tremendous moment.  I was smiling so hard it made my eyes water.  The cloud cover was pretty heavy, so we maybe only had 7 or 8 seconds of visibility, but those seconds were worth every amount of effort we put into getting there.  Every around us cheered and clapped and it was amazing.  The complete lack of sound from the shuttle made it even more awe-inspiring, like watching a movie scene in slow motion with only the background music playing.  It took a long time for the sound to reach us, but when it did, the ground shook and all the kids thought that was the coolest thing.  Ok, EVERYONE thought that was the coolest thing.

I took this minutes after the space shuttle broke the cloud line--you can see the shadow of the smoke trailing along the path to the left above the clouds--but the initial smoke plume still hadn't cleared by the time we left.

And here's THE VIDEO.  Ok, it's pretty far away, so you really can't see much, but still.  They tell you to "watch, don't record," which was the best advice of the day, so I was paying 100% attention to the binoculars in my hands and 0% attention to the camera between my knees.  The coolest part about the video is the sound!  You can't see much, but you can hear it, and you can see my hand shaking.  I'm wary of how Blogger handles the quality of these things, so if it's terrible, I blame them!

To quote from my Moleskine: "I JUST SAW SOMEONE GO INTO FREAKING SPACE."  Man, I am so articulate.  Speaking of being articulate, I'm not even going to apologize for saying "Oh my gosh" over and over and over, because I seriously had no control over what was coming out of my mouth.  It's just a good thing I don't have a foul vocabulary, because you would've heard it.  I'm pretty sure a guy behind us dropped an s-word at launch within earshot of at least a dozen kids, so either that's proof of my argument or he's just a tool.

To round off the excellent morning, we totally lucked out with traffic.  We were also expecting serious traffic jams getting out of this tiny town--previous visitors had said three or four hours back to the highway was the norm, so we had actually planned to hang back and wait for everything to clear out.  However, since we parked so close, Ricky and I had very short pros/cons discussion and decided to try and make a break for it.  We had everything packed and back in the car in five minutes, and we made it out of the town in another 15!  Most everyone was parked bumper-to-bumper in the aforementioned commercial lots (which did wind up charging $30/car--we saw the signs!), so the roads were still pretty clear even though we hadn't dashed immediately to the car after the launch.  We ran into some bottlenecking at the highway merge, but again, no more than 15 minutes of slow-moving (not even stopped) traffic.  IT WAS GREAT.  I was thrilled, because getting out earlier meant we had more time to spend at Disney!

We stopped at a gas station to buy me new sunglasses (you never, ever want to be in Florida without sunglasses) and set off for Orlando!

I could barely handle my own emotions at this point.
The Disney post will have to come later, because this one took way longer than I expected (pictures are such a guys are lucky I love you so much).  I have an exciting lineup that I need to get through:  Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Epcot, and--finally--our recent Costa Rica trip.  Whew!