Thursday, July 14, 2011

Smile Because It Happened (Launch Day) - July 8, 2011

Post on July 8, 2011

Atlantis lit up in the predawn. I took this shortly after arrival.
After only a couple hours of light sleep, I woke up to my iPhone's sci-fi alarm at 2 a.m. We had been instructed yesterday (Thursday, July 7) to check to see if NASA was going to fuel up Atlantis. And sure enough, even though there was only a 30% chance of the weather being good enough for Atlantis to launch, she was being fueled up. By fueling up the shuttle this meant if NASA had to scrub the launch later that day there would be a 48 hour delay until the next launch attempt.

As I got up in the darkened hotel room, I hoped that I wouldn't be too tired to enjoy the main event of the day still scheduled for 11:26 a.m. EDT (and that the shuttle would actually get to launch!) Staying at an average hotel room in Titusville, my total stay of 6 days there was costing over $1200 for a room that usually goes for about $60 a night. I had booked the more expensive hotel to quiet my nagging fear of missing the launch while stuck in traffic trying to drive in from Orlando, where I had originally booked a hotel stay for a much cheaper cost.

I was also still trying that morning to arrange a ride into the tweetup since my boyfriend and kids would need the car to catch their boat ride out to the Banana River where they would be viewing the launch. Luckily, David let me hitch a ride into KSC with him again. In turn his girlfriend hitched a ride with my family.

VAB parking lot still fairly empty at 5 a.m.
As we left around 4 a.m. traffic was already starting to get bad, and hundreds of people were already waiting in the Astronaut Hall of Fame viewing area miles and miles away from the launch site. We also were seeing a bright glow on the horizon in front of us and wondered if it was the shuttle being illuminated at night. Upon our arrival back to the VAB parking lot, the lot was still rather empty but in the press area, tons of media were already filling up every available inch of space. And then we were greated with a beautiful site. Atlantis was lit up like a Christmas tree on Christmas morning (see above photo.) It was such a beautiful sight to receive in the early monring hours before the big present of the launch would, hopefully, be delivered to everyone.

Lori Garver made another appearance in our tent at the start of the day. I was surprised that she and other high profile NASA officials were coming to talk to us when surely they were very busy and about to have an incredibly hectic day. Just yesterday Angie Brewer, the flow director for Atlantis, had spoken to us even though she was scheduled to be prepping the space shuttle at 1 or 2 a.m. today. It was also surreal to see these NASA people show up in our tent and then moments later appear on the live NASA TV playing in our tent to address the media.

Here was the schedule of events for the big day:

Friday, July 8/ Launch: Tweetup Day 2
6:30 a.m. – Robotic Refueling Mission demonstration
7:00 a.m. – Group picture beside the countdown clock (Click link to view the photo. Can you spot me?)
7:05 a.m. – Astronaut Tony Antonelli, STS-119, STS-132
7:40 a.m. – Tweetup wave to the crew as they drive by in the astrovan on their way to the launch pad
8:00 a.m. – Bob Crippen, STS-1, STS-7, STS-41C, STS-41G
8:30 a.m. – Lt. Col. Patrick Barrett, 45th Weather Squadron, U.S. Air Force
11:26 a.m. – Launch of space shuttle Atlantis on the STS-135 mission

Me with astronaut Tony Antonelli
The weather wasn't as bad as it had been yesterday, but we were still getting rain on and off and on again. We went out to wave to the STS-135 astronauts as they were heading to the launch pad. Here is a photo from that:
The astronauts van in front of the VAB
After waving to Sandy, Rex, Chris, and Doug, I almost missed seeing astronaut Bob Crippin when making my way back to the tweetup tent. I was able to catch most of his discussion and shot this brief video of him.

Astronaut Tony Antonelli also spoke to us. He is learning Russian and going through a battery of physicals and tests to be in line for a launch on the Soyuz. 

Seth Green was at the NASA Tweetup event for the launch of shuttle Atlantis STS-135 too. Seth introduced the STS-135 theme song composed by Bear McCreary (creator of Eurkea and Battlestar Galactica's theme.) During the song, I recorded the live NASA TV stream that was playing in the tent as it was showing the STS-135 astronauts getting prepped for launch.

I also got to speak with Seth and tell him how much I enjoy his work. I told him that my sons and I really enjoy Robot Chicken Star Wars. He cringed a bit, looked concerned, and asked, "How old are your kids?" I  said their teenagers, 14 and 16 years old. He looked a bit more at ease but said, "That's right on the age line."
Me and Seth Green. He took this pic with my iPhone.
I wish I'd had something cool for Seth to sign like my Robot Chicken DVDs, but I didn't. At least I got a picture with him. I knew I'd need that to get credit with my teenagers. When my sons heard about me meeting Seth they were envious. I laughed when my 14 year old said to me later, "I hear Seth is concerned that I like to watch Star Wars Robot Chicken."

We were all getting very anxious for launch. On NASA TV we were watching the astronauts getting ready for the launch. Some NASA officials came into the tent to let us know that things were looking good with the weather for the launch. Soon thereafter people started to make their way outside. I had been frantically trying to charge up my video and still camera batteries. I was also having a last minute panic when my video camera SD card was full after recording the Bear McCreary song. I was so glad that I found out before the launch that my card was full rather than during the launch..

I made my way outside to check on the status of my tripod that I had set up when arriving that morning. There was someone who had set up a tripod directly behind me (that never showed up) as well as a crush of photographers on either side of me. Another NASA Tweetup person was near me too. The professional news photographers were rather rude to us NASA tweetup peeps, but I stood my ground. I wasn't going to move now and miss the launch. Besides, I'd staked out this spot a long time before they had shown up.

Waiting for the launch, I was very quiet. Some people were screaming. Others were making small talk. I was just taking it all in. I didn't want to forget this moment. I was also nervously fumbling with my video camera and borrowed SLR camera (which was constantly acting up.) While waiting for the launch I drafted a quick tweet: Ready for launch! Godspeed Atlantis.  .

Here is my video from the launch:

The launch was spectacular! I had fortunately remembered to get my sunglasses from my purse moments before the launch. A delay happened at 31 seconds to launch, I wondered if that was it. Was it all going to end without a launch?

Then NASA made the decision to go for it! The countdown started again. A small cloud could be seen rising from the launch pad, and then almost in slow motion at first the shuttle started to rise into the sky.

There were moments that the exhaust flames were brighter than starring at the sun. I tried to take some pics and record the best video I could while not spending the whole time looking into either of them too much. I'm not a professional photographer or videographer, but I still wanted to have my own digital memories of the event. I also wanted to watch all of it with my own eyes. And it was all going by soooo fast!

Atlantis was high in the sky when the sound started to reach us. I was expecting it to be extremely loud maybe like a jet engine, but it was so much more intense. It started off just like a extremely loud jet engine noise. Then it became more so much more than just sound. It was a vibration and sound. I could actually feel the sound. There was a fluttering and rattling sensation happening inside my ribs and chest from the was amazing!

The cloud cover was very low so Atlantis disappeared into them rather quickly. We were not able to see the separation of the solid rocket boosters as this happened after they went into the clouds. I was slightly disappointed that I would never see that happen now, but I was also still recovering from how amazing everything else was that I had just witnessed.

The weight of the day had suddenly hit me. All of the history of this area. The astronauts had safely launched. It was the end of the shuttle era. This was my first and last shuttle launch. I hadn't jumped up and down. I hadn't yelled. I had just experienced it. I had just absorbed it all. After filming some more of the clouds and taking a few more pictures, I gathered up my tripod to head back to the tent to see what was happening on NASA TV.

I was starting to feel some tears coming into my eyes, but then I thought, "Don't cry because it is over. Smile because it happened." I came across another tweetup person whose name I don't recall because I was still recovering and processing everything I had just experienced. We chatted excitedly about what had just happened. I only realized later that my video camera was still recording so I have audio of that shuttle launch afterglow conversation.

Back in the tent we could see that Atlantis was making its way safely into low Earth orbit. It was amazing to think just moments before we had watched them take off and now they were in outer space. I had a tweet I had composed outside that I was still trying to send out because the wireless and 3G network had briefly gone out most likely from everyone trying to connect at the same time. Here is my tweet that finally went through: Amazing!!! Amazing!!! Amazing!!! Liftoff Atlantis!!! Last shuttle launch ever and my first one ever!!! Thank you, thank you 

We got to stay in the tent awhile longer working on our photos, videos, and thoughts as well as tweeting away the afternoon. From M&Ms we got special limited edition (only 160 made) tins containing M&Ms with the date, shuttles, and 3,2,1 liftoff printed on them. We also got pins and shirts from My 16 year old son told me later that NicoNico was the Japanese version of YouTube.

At one point Trent Perrotto, a NASA public affairs officer, made his way over to our table. At our table was @DavidJulyan @KellySchwark @GrizzGuy @GoodGadd  Perrotto wanted to know what we thought. I was still babbling about it all being amazing...I wore out the word amazing that day.

Some people started to leave the tent. Stephanie and John invited people to come up to the mic and share their thoughts. Lots of us stayed and listened. I think a lot of us might have stayed there all day and into the night if they would have let us. And then like the not-so-subtle hint you give to a house guest that is overstaying their welcome, we were told, "Feel free to stay, but we're shutting off the wi-fi soon."

I figured out a ride off of KSC grounds. While waiting for my ride out, I stood outside in the press area soaking in my last few moments there. Most of the media had already left. Somewhere in that press area field I lost my NASA button that I had gotten five years earlier on my first visit here. My small offering to the NASA grounds. It seemed like more than a fair trade.

On our way out to the VAB parking lot, we saw that the doors to the VAB that are normally closed were wide open and music was floating out into the steamy Florida afternoon. Jimmy Buffet was playing live in there. The NASA employees were having a big party to end all parties. I'm sure this day was very emotional for NASA employees on many levels. Some would no longer have a job after this final launch.

30 years of space shuttles had been a good run. Now we must look to the future...may it hold even better space adventures for all of us!

Find more of my pictures from this day on Flickr:

Shuttle Atlantis STS-135 Predawn - July 8, 2011

Also be sure to check out NASA HQ's Flickr account at: 

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