STS-93 Launch Viewing

or, for once a VIP

July 20 - July 23, 1999

(also see STS-99 launch report)
(also see STS-101 launch report)

(also see STS-121 roll-out report)

NASA Mission Details

Last modified: October 18, 2006

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World Travelogues


Shuttle launch
photography advice 
(with more pictures)


img0017.jpg (55250 bytes)img0031.jpg (175304 bytes)For those who didn't know yet, I am a geek. So it comes that previous to this experience, I have witnessed 6 space shuttle launches since 1994 (STS 59, 65, 68, 78, 89, 88). For five of them, I managed to convince other people to come along - definitely non-geeks, and so far they all loved it. It should not come as a surprise that when I received a VIP invitation for STS-93 I didn't hesitate for a single second and cancelled other trips, such as being a speaker at MacWorld which was scheduled for the same time. We are going to Florida, baby!

img0006.jpg (89077 bytes)For those among you who have never done it - what can you expect? Bottom line, you will see and hear some two minutes of major action and   noise. Kids will scream in fear and some car alarms will go off, but you will not really hear them. Then you will see up to seven more minutes of a faint streak quietly being created in the sky, given a night launch and weather gods permitting. You will have to wait more than four hours for this, in the humid Florida heat, joined by mosquitoes and alligators. Because shuttles rarely launch on time, you will take a week's vacation, rent a wonderful American designed & built car, and will be coming back to the Kennedy Space Center everyday till they launch, hoping that you can return earlier than planned. If you are lucky you at least get to fly for free, like me.

img0009.jpg (75268 bytes)img0008.jpg (74671 bytes)The KSC visitor complex has something to offer, especially for the young ones among us. The rocket garden, and the two IMAX theatres showing space related movies, including a rather cute & cheesy fairy tale. The whole center is sprinkled with elevator music coming from pieces of rock in the grass, and with some luck the density of German tourists will be lower than at the Grand Canyon. And of course you have the space shop, where you can spend anywhere between $3 for an inflatable space shuttle (very popular!) to $hundreds for - don't ask.

img0013.jpg (70740 bytes)img0030.jpg (97074 bytes)But if you are a VIP, baby, then you get some special bonuses: first, you will view the launch from the Banana Creek VIP site, located near the new Saturn-V center. That's about as close as they will let anyone go. Second, you will get a VIP tour, with photo opportunities at the launch pad perimeter. Along with this feat on the downside you also join a sizable VIP crowd behaving more like mad cattle, wanting to be on the very first bus to leave from the visitor center to the viewing site, where you can wait another 4 hours for the launch, or no launch.

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Liquid hydrogen tank at Pad 39A - Shuttle on Pad 39B in the bground.

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Mate-Demate device. That's where they put the shuttle onto the 747 in case they need to fly it to or from CA.

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Crawler Transporter. This guy moves at 1mph and takes the whole launch platform with the shuttle on it from the VAB to the pad. Its fuel consumption is measured in gallons per 100ft.

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The VAB (vehicle assembly building; the cube), the 2nd largest building in the world. In the foreground: launch control

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Crawler way - the width of a freeway, just for slower and heavier  traffic. In the back - shuttle on pad 39B.

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Shuttle on Pad 39B from afar

img0015.jpg (112386 bytes)img0016.jpg (92226 bytes)I was in a lucky group of four friends, traveling from various corners of the country to see the launch - two launch virgins, me, and one very senior viewer of 17 launches (speaking of nuts!). Together we managed to carry onto the bus four serious cameras, five tripods, one video camera, and one professional DAT sound recorder. Don't forget the mandatory bug spray and 2L water bottles. This way we joined the 1019 other people and we all smelled nicely anti-buggy. There was a number of people who didn't have to smell, because they could stay in a bug-free, air-conditioned trailer up to the last moment. In other words, we had the questionable honor of listening to a song  performed by Judy Collins and of the presence of the First Lady, her daughter, and the female soccer team. [Pic of Chelsea] [Pic of Mrs. Clinton and Judy Collins]

img0032.jpg (122818 bytes)img0021.jpg (88821 bytes)This night (July 20-21st) a bus full of tourists was accidentally directed to the VIP site, and the officials spent a good hour collecting all passengers back onto the bus. Can you imagine being a random space center tourist getting to the VIP site, not by your fault, and then they don't let you watch the launch? Well they didn't launch after all that day. After waiting two hours for the bus and four hours for the launch, they scrubbed it at T-6.5s because of a sensor glitch. At that point I was ready to call Delta and go home right away - when they scrub a launch this close it's usually about a month turnaround - they don't call it off this close just because of weather. But not this time - only 48 hours. So the above story repeats itself, with minor differences. On the second day the 1st Lady actually joins the crowd, in a way, between five minutes before the scheduled launch to five minutes before the final scrub (she obviously didn't have the patience, or not good enough mosquito spray).  Still, there was again no launch because of a truly beautiful lightning storm. You know, black sky and all at a sudden lightning right at the VAB, bright like day, and great thunder only matched by the launch noise... But if there is lightning, they don't launch - a lesson learned from Apollo 12.

img0036.jpg (37498 bytes)img0038.jpg (34108 bytes)Streak.jpg (195227 bytes)Because of this second scrub my 4-day vacation turned into a full week. Had to call the airline and extend, because nobody expected a total of 4 day launch window. But the third time was the charm - no First Lady nor soccer team, no weird singing from the speakers, and no boys urinating at the countdown clock for that matter. Just a perfectly black sky, then a bright flash of light and one of the best shows ever witnessed by mankind.

The four cameras gave me some usable pictures - the best exposed had a major smudge but there was backup. Would I do it again? Just give me a VIP pass, and I'll take care of the rest! I would recommend it to anyone - and you don't need a VIP pass, for that matter. My previous viewings, from the coast or the normal viewing site, were enough of an experience to write home about.

Shuttle launch photography advice (with pictures)

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World Travelogues

STS-400 Dual Pad
STS-126 Demate
Devils Tower 2008
Tanzania 2006
Antarctica 2004
Honeymoon in Peru - 2003
Maine Foliage
Europe - Summer 2002
7k in 3 Weeks - 10 Mountain & Pacific States '01
Big Island of Hawaii
Arizona 2003
Paris Sous La Pluie
Owls in Minnesota
Yellowstone 2003
STS-93 Shuttle Launch VIP Viewing 1999
STS-99 Shuttle Launch VIP Viewing, 2000
STS-101 Viewing from the Press Site
Bryce, Zion, Yellowstone 1998
Scouting Mission to Australia 1997
Adventures In Scotland 1996
Korea 1997
The Arizona, New Mexico Trip 1996
The Mono Lake Overnight Trip 1996