Together One Last Time

April 17-18, 2009

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Sorry for the watermarks in this travelogue, I feel they are necessary...

Last modified: May 21, 2009

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In life there are some "once in a lifetime" opportunities that may seem to be exactly that - going to a shuttle launch, for instance. But they aren't really once in a lifetime, since you could theoretically catch the next shuttle launch (while they still do them, anyway). Then there are truly "once in a lifetime" opportunities - stuff you simply can't do again. Seeing the polar ice in the summer may be one of them, and so is seeing two Space Shuttles on the launch pad at the same time. Back in the 1990s we had this happen, when the schedule was all ambitious and wild. Then it happened again in 2001, for some strange reason. And that was it.

Then the Columbia accident occurred, caused by damage to the orbiter during launch. Afterwards, NASA decreed that from now on, every crew has to have a backup method of getting home, should their orbiter suffer similar damage at launch. This is fairly easy to do for trips to the International Space Station - they are docked already and can hang out for a little bit until they are ferried back via the Russian Soyuz capsule or another US Shuttle. This is however not possible for a mission that doesn't go to the ISS, such as the Hubble repair mission STS-125: In case of any damage to the STS-125 shuttle, another one has to be on standby to go get the original STS-125 crew.

This was of course easier said than done: because a 4th service mission to Hubble wasn't planned after the Columbia accident (and came into being only after major public uproar about the upcoming demise of Hubble), work had begun on pad 39B in 2006 after the STS-121 launch (which roll-out I got to attend) to fit it for the planned new Ares disposable rocket system, which is eventually supposed to bring the US back to the moon and beyond. Having a 2nd shuttle on standby would mean undoing a lot of this work and making it fit for a shuttle again. This would delay the Ares schedule even further - but that was what had to be done.

In September 2008 the moment had come: Atlantis was readied on pad 39A for STS-125, and Endeavour was rolled to pad 39B as STS-400, the possible rescue mission. Before pad 39B is modified for good, we would have one last chance to see two shuttles on the pad at the same time. Airline ticket and hotel reservation in hand, yours truly was about as ready to go as ever. Unfortunately, at the same time Hurricane Ike was beating the crap out of Houston, which happens where NASA mission control is located, and so was my escort for the trip. So thanks to weather a thousand miles away, we didn't get to experience the beautiful display at KSC, rainbow included. My truly once in a lifetime chance had just slipped away.

Sometimes, you get lucky and get to make lemonade from lemons. After STS-400 was rolled out and with the launch of the STS-125 Hubble service mission just days ahead, the main computer on board of Hubble failed - something the repair mission wasn't prepared to deal with. It would have to be delayed and spare parts would have to be organized and tested, and the crew would have to be trained to deal with this additional repair. Atlantis was rolled back to the VAB, Endeavour was rolled to pad 39A and became STS-126 (and whose return atop the modified 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft I got to witness). And I potentially got a 2nd chance at a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Click on the first image to start a slide show for this day (108 pictures)
Images shown below are a small selection.
In slide show, click on image to return to index.
Sorry for the watermarks in this slide show.
I felt they were necessary.

Fast forward half a year. Another airline ticket and hotel reservation in hand I boarded my by now standard redeye flight to Orlando. The mission was clear - don't screw up, you're not getting a 2nd shot, this time for sure. As a consequence, in an attempt to avoid all that could go wrong based on my experience with the STS-121 roll-out, I decided to arrive a day early and get some rest. I was unable to get my badge one day early so I couldn't raid the gift shop at the visitor center (because I didn't feel like paying the entrance fee just so I can go to the gift shop). I could head to the beach, though, as I was ordered by co-workers to document beach babes, if any were to be found. Unfortunately the beaches were devoid of babes, and the spiffy baby blue Chrysler Sebring rental car wasn't really a chick magnet, either, even though it was a great example of what Detroit can build today. With spring break over the beach was now full of middle school aged kids, and I had to disappoint my friends at the office. At least it would be quiet at the motel and I could sleep :)

I met the Public Affairs Office folks at the gate promptly at 6 in the morning, got my badge, got sniffed by the NASA security dog, and joined the ranks of photographers documenting the roll-out of STS-400 (mark II). Or so we thought: by the time we arrived at pad 39B, Endeavour was already parked there. Everyone was flabbergasted - it seemed to be the first time in history that a roll-out happened both on time and below 8 hours in duration. We didn't get to shoot the crawler carrying Endeavour up the hill, but let's face it, for geeks like me this view was definitely worth getting up for, even if the light was at the wrong angle.

The official dual launch pad photo op was scheduled for around 2pm, so we had some time to kill and after the morning photo op hung out at the press center. I had no ambitions or even ideas what to do with my time, but my hosts took care of that for me. Ordered to grab my photo bag we were soon on the way to 39B, again. And closer. And closer. And - well, any closer and you'd either fall down the flame trench or hit the launch tower. The geek in me was having a field day, a bit fearful of what may come: See, I am more than just afraid of heights. And for me, "heights" start at about 2m altitude.

Equipped with a wide angle and a fisheye lens, the door soon opened in front of me at the 255' level, or about 50 times my comfort height. A deep breath of the fresh breeze, and there we were, looking down at Endeavour. Looking down at it! Down, people, down, not up. 90% of my mental capacity were focused on standing straight and not freaking out, while the other 10% were enjoying themselves. But even so, the 10% were having quite a blast.

One difference between a good author and me is that s/he could truly convey the beauty and awe of the view. Then again I'd say that there's no such thing as conveying this experience. Pictures can't do it, either. You have to actually stand there. An IMAX movie (The Dream Is Alive), viewed actually in IMAX and not on your home TV, may be a good approximation. But still you can't feel the wind; you can't hear the sounds because the narrator keeps talking; you don't feel the almost rigid floor under your feet; you don't feel the sweat on the palms of your hands that are desperately holding on to the railings. In the IMAX movie, you don't have this nagging voice in the back of your head constantly reminding you to hold on tight to the camera, as dropping it would by far exceed the coverage of your personal liability insurance.

I had fresh 16GB cards in both cameras so I didn't really have to worry about that part of business. I did have to worry about walking on various cat walks, though. Not my forte: look straight ahead, not down. Not down. And then I had to try to take in as much as I could. I was on the launch tower of pad 39B, with Endeavour standing right there. I'm not sure you can relate, but that's about as cool as it comes, and way cooler than a little boy from behind the Iron Curtain could have ever dreamed of. EVER. Back in 1981, when Columbia was first launched, the story barely made the paper. Some 30+ years ago I was building rocket models out of mud at my grandma's house based on pictures from books. Now I was standing right next to the most complex piece of machinery man had ever built. You can't describe it, you can't photograph it. You just have to see it, and enjoy it.

Unfortunately, like with all good things, I could not stay on level 255 or 195 forever, as much as I wanted to. We had to go back and make the official "dual pad viewing" appointment, which is what I had actually come for.

Back at the press building all photographers piled into three vans and headed to the sacred locations where the stars - er, orbiters - align. The RSS roll-back on pad 39A was just beginning, and let's face it, the view was not really spectacular: take a hazy Florida summer day, and try to shoot through a mile or two of that air. You will get lovely blurred images of a white something standing by a grey something, with an orange something sticking out in the back. But that's what we came for, and that's what we got. Three T38s were flying in formation above the launch pads, taking some PR photos. Later on, two NASA helicopters were seen in the air doing the same. Unfortunately the light was quite miserable, especially compared to last September; so while as an experience it was still great (if you are into that sort of stuff), it wasn't much of a photo op.

We got to spend the afternoon and evening in the press building, watching the process of photo editing: various photographers were delivering photos of the event from the ground and the air, photos waiting to be published on the official NASA site and to be handed out to the press.

Fortunately, we had made arrangements for two special trips to the railroad tracks in addition of the one afternoon trip: one at sunset, and one at sunrise. In the evening it was just four people, two shuttles, and about a billion predominantly female mosquitoes. Armed with Buzz-Off clothing all over my body except ankles and hands I was well prepared for the onslaught. The roughly 100 bites on each hand were a fair price to pay for the view of the setting sun and sky turning blue. Unfortunately, the hazy conditions prevailed and in addition pad 39A was not illuminated, so photographically the offering was rather poor. But just like on the launch tower, it was all about being there.

I finally made it to the motel around 11 in the evening, Double Whopper in hand. I set the alarm clock for 4am and started downloading gigabytes of images and movies. With all things said and done, I got three hours of sleep when I headed to the cape again for our 5am meet at the gate. By 6am we were at the train tracks again, three men and more or less the same billion of mosquitoes. The morning light was a great treat - Atlantis and Endeavour glowing gold in the slowly rising sun. The NASA helicopter made another brief appearance, documenting this unique scene for one last time, before the two RSS close and the two shuttles disappear under their protective coats.

Sunrise in the bag we spent the day around the press center. Saturday was "family day", an occasion when KSC employees can bring their families and drive them around. Today they would get an exceptional treat. This also meant that we would lay low for the day - traffic was a solid line of cars that barely seemed to be moving. With nothing better to do, I tried to get to the gift shop - again. It was impossible to go to the "main" gift shop, because that would mean to be stuck in traffic on the way back. So we headed to the Saturn V center which also has a gift shop and which is inside the secure area. No dice - you can enter the Saturn V visitor center only if you arrive on the official tour bus, not if you arrive in a government vehicle. I love bureaucracy. No T-shirts, then!

This would be a convenient place to mention that there's no food in the secure area of KSC on a weekend. We couldn't leave because we would be stuck in the "family day" traffic. Therefore, this was our 2nd day with no food. But there was ample water! Ha. We hung out, talking about rockets and cameras and other stuff that geeks love to talk about. Eventually 3pm rolled by, with that the end of Family Day, and Dex knocked on the door. He had Family Day PR duty and now was off the hook. Thanks to extremely bad weather in Houston he was stuck with us for the evening, so we made the most out of him: we visited the launch control center, both the new one as well as the old one, featuring computers from the early 80s, waiting to be recycled. After a visit to the LCC we went to have some beef - a welcome meal for us starved souls. At the table next to us at the steak house someone ordered some sort of beef that's prepared right at the table, and whatever the waiter poured onto the grill caused an incredibly smelly and thick cloud to engulf half the restaurant. Our steaks were not nearly as dangerous, but they were sorta small: Dex is used to the genuine 72 ounce steaks they serve back in Texas :)

In the spirit of the much calmer 2nd day at the cape, we drove around the launch pads looking for photo ops, making a stop at the security watch tower at the beach. Once again I had to scale a scary staircase which was actually closer to being a ladder than anything else. The light from the watch tower was nice, but it was showing the wrong side of the orbiters - more precisely, no orbiters, just the external tanks and SRBs. So after a quick photo op we headed back to the train tracks. Today, the light was far better than the previous night, and we were confident that the show would be good. Things got even better when the STS-125 payload arrived at the pad just in time for sunset, resulting in the work lights being turned on at pad 39A. So we had perfect illumination, almost haze-free air, and a billion bugs for company. What else can a man want?

We stayed late, and on the way back made a quick stop at 39A on one of the photo hills. I didn't even bother taking pictures this time; I just sat on one of the metal boxes out there and watched the sight, all to the amusement of my company, all space flight veterans who walk around here for breakfast. What can I say, this is an awesome experience for me. There's millions of pictures out there, but none can replace the experience of sucking in the sight and sounds. I swear if it weren't for the ocean breeze you could hear the men talking upstairs on the launch tower.

Less than an hour before I turned into a pumpkin we left the space center and headed to bed. I bought the traditional "mission accomplished" donut on the way to the motel and spent a quality hour packing before finally crashing in bed, for another three hour rest period before heading to the airport for the first flight out in the morning.

What can I say? This trip stood for so many things, so many dreams in one. You may get a 2nd shot at a once in a lifetime opportunity. You may exceed your wildest dreams. And there are such things that "no words can describe" - or no photos, for that matter. Just like being at Machu Picchu, sometimes experiencing the real thing is so much bigger than seeing all the documentaries (and trust me, as my wife would say, I have seen them all). While you may not get a shot at seeing two shuttles on the pad anymore, you still have a shot at the polar ice, or Machu Picchu for that matter. Find your once in a lifetime thing, and don't let them turn you down, whoever they may be. Just plan way ahead.

Panorama Gallery. High resolution images from the trip with resolution between 40 and 200 megapixels (10 images).

To zoom in, hover the mouse over the image and press the Shift key.
To zoom out, press the Command key.

Generated with AutoPano Giga 2.0.0

A short (7 minute) movie from the trip (no narration).
Once running, press the "HQ" button in the viewer to view movie at high quality.


Related Stories:

STS-121 Roll-Out
STS-126 De-Mate
Shuttle Launch Photography Advice

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