The Tour

May 18, 2006

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It was a bright and sunny morning in Orlando. The crowded neighborhoods which I am used to in California gave way to generous landscaping; BMWs, Lexi and Porsches gave way to a more American taste in vehicles, and Asian ladies equipped with welding masks were replaced by friendly senior citizens - with the notable difference that the latter don't see red traffic lights purely as a suggestion. But like at home the speed limit is just a recommendation, so I was at the Kennedy Space Center in no time, where Jay was already waiting for me. A few short minutes and an elbow in bird poop later, Alan showed up wearing the blue overall of an astronaut, sporting a happy broad smile on his face. This ought to be good.

Our guide for the day was Matt, who typically does the rounds with real dignitaries, not just two nerds. I am sure that had Matt known what was in store for him with us, he would have been more reluctant to take this job. But it was too late now - and we were at our first stop, the OPF, or Orbiter Processing Facility. Inside was my favorite orbiter, Atlantis. Oh my god, he has a favorite orbiter, you now may think. I do, I even named my NeXT computer after it. Now here I was, less than a foot away from Atlantis, the very orbiter that flew 26 times into space already, and here she stood, being prepared for the next flight - right in front of me, ready to be petted. But I knew to behave myself.

We got a nice tour of the OPF; not that we could go many places, nor was much of the orbiter actually visible. It was surrounded by scaffolding and other apparati, and not much other than the landing gear and the underbelly was visible. Still, having been standing right under the belly of a Space Shuttle -- seeing a few brand new, black tiles next to old, experienced, grey ones which have protected the orbiter during re-entry on one or more flights -- gave us a great feeling of awe for the huge number of complex systems that make out the orbiter, and which all have to work flawlessly to ensure the safety of the crew and success of a mission.

Click on the first image to start a slide show for this day (61 pictures)
Images shown below are a small selection.
In slide show, click on image to return to index.

Out of the OPF, our next stop was the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) itself, the holy grail if you will. We all took the equipment that we thought was essential and entered thru the big, inviting main door. This immense building was something to behold. Segmented into different compartments it has two bays where a Space Shuttle can sleep at night, and according to Alan, in a hurricane emergency can even house all three. And for us, it was time to go visit one: Space Shuttle Discovery was being prepared for her roll-out, scheduled for tomorrow noon.

Just like at the OPF, we relinquished our cell phones and everything else that was emitting radio waves, as well as a photo ID, and received a hot pink ID instead. With that in the pocket and cameras around the neck we headed to one of the many floors of the VAB. There, we got a spectacular view of Discovery; the view was especially spectacular for those among us who weren't afraid to lean over a fence and take a peek. That would not be me, though; still, the experience was simply amazing, and no pictures can do it justice.

Like with everything in life, there's a price of admission even to the VAB. For me, it was my stupidity of not having sufficient batteries for my Contax 645 and running out when we got onto the mobile launch platform, or MLP. The 2nd part of the price of admission is yet unknown: during a moment of weakness - or rather inattentiveness - I dropped the rented Contax / Carl Zeiss 45mm lens onto the VAB floor, and unlike the time when Essan dropped my 28-70L onto concrete a few years back, this time the VAB floor won: maybe they used better concrete here, or Canon lenses are superiorly built compared to Zeiss. Who knows. I am sure that one day I'll get the bill, for now it's off to the shop. [Update: Since Contax is no more, we agreed that I'll buy out the damaged lens from the rental place. The final damage was $1055, including CA sales tax. Gulp.]

When Matt first saw us he assured us to take as much time with pictures as we cared to. That was before he saw what it meant to set up a tripod with a 645 on it. So with more than an hour behind schedule, we eventually piled our camera gear into the van and headed for a quick lunch at the cafeteria right by the LCC / VAB. The food was good and incredibly cheap, compared to what we pay here at home in CA (same could be said for gasoline, but I digress). It was interesting to see Alan mingling with all the employees: it seemed like he knew everyone, or at least they knew him. It's good to see someone who's truly enjoying his job.

After lunch we were off to the next stop, the Shuttle Landing Facility, SLF. This is a very long and wide piece of concrete: at 15,000 feet it's one of the longest landing strips in the world, and at 300 feet wide it's the widest. That's as wide as a football field is long, people! This gives the shuttle a good place to land - after all, it has only one shot at it. Instead of the shuttle, today the strip was home to some T-38 aircraft which astronauts use as company cars. Among the two planes parked there was also Alan's; he showed it to us, including the inside of the engine. Wow, I always wanted to stick my head into an afterburner; just please keep the engine off. We also got to see the trunk for his personal belongings, right at the belly of the plane. That way Alan doesn't have to wait for his bags to come onto the carousel - or not, as was the case later on with my return flight. But I'm getting way ahead of myself.

At the main gate to the SLF we could also see the interesting steel frame structure called the Mate/Demate device which is used to get the shuttle from the top of the 747 which is used to get it from California, when it has to land there due to bad weather in Florida. It has to be quite a sight to see an MD-80 sized plane - the shuttle - be carried on top of a 747. Eat that, A380.

From the SLF we headed to launch pad 39B, to which Discovery would be rolled tomorrow. On the way there we stopped at the press site, where we met with George Shelton, the official NASA KSC photographer. He gave us a cup of nicely chilled water and numerous helpful tips for tomorrow's roll-out. He also pointed us to an osprey nest, unfortunately built by not the brightest osprey parents on a set of low standing loudspeakers right at the parking lot of the press site. This means that junior was just a few feet away from quite some traffic, and worse, obsessive photographers who never can get enough. And of course when one of these crazy bipods gets out of the car - wielding a fat lens - mommy and daddy leave poor scared junior alone in the nest.

In one of the early emails to Alan I showed him a picture that I took at STS-93, during the VIP tour, and asked him if he can get me closer to the launch pad than that. He said that it should not be a problem. I specifically requested access to the flame trench, if possible. And that's what I was about to get. The pad looks big, but wait until you find yourself at the bottom of it, in a deep pit, surrounded by tons of fire proof bricks. There was not much else to see down there, really, other than bricks that have been to hell and back. Huge pipes leading water to the sound suppression system which unleashes 300,000 gallons of water in 20 seconds, a system that reduces the force of the sound waves so that it doesn't disassemble the launch pad.

Above the flame trench stands the 250 foot tall launch tower, topped by an 80 foot tall lightning rod. It's quite a sight, especially if you get to the base of the launch pad and can see the tower with the rotating service structure attached. And the four 9 feet wide tracks on which tomorrow the crawler will bring the shuttle; the tracks are covered with 9x4' plywood - custom made, a foot longer than usual, as Alan was quick to point out. The dorky hard hats that one has to wear around here don't take anything away from the experience, even though they make operating a medium format camera quite difficult. Wearing the hard hat backwards helps with that a little bit.

We thanked Matt for his time and excellent guidance, and headed to a steak house in Cocoa Beach where we chatted about the day, the upcoming roll-out, Canon vs. Nikon, lithium batteries in space, and life in general.

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