TITUSVILLE, FL — The Space Shuttle Endeavour was scheduled to lift off for its final voyage on Friday, April 29 at 3:47 p.m. Endeavour’s launch will be the second to last U.S.-initiated, scheduled manned space mission. Following the expected June launch of Atlantis, NASA’s shuttle program will end. For the foreseeable future, U.S. astronauts bound for the International Space Station (ISS), will be hitching rides on Russian rockets. There is no current replacement space vehicle, thus ending, at least for now, 50 years of American manned-space exploration. Notably, it was exactly 50 years ago today, on May 5, 1961, that Alan Shepard became the first American in space.
With the opportunities to get an up-close view of a launch narrowing, I decided to travel to Titusville with my wife Michelle, expecting huge crowds to join us. It has been estimated that more than 500,000 people would cram into the area for the event.
T-minus 19 hours, 28 minutes
We arrived in Titusville at approximately 8:30 p.m. on Thursday night and decided to head for Space View Park, one of the best viewing areas on the coast with an unobstructed view of Endeavor’s launch pad. Despite being nearly 12 miles away, the launch pad could be seen on the horizon.
The small parking lot was already full when we arrived. Several tents were set up with people camping, some having arrived days before. Lawn chairs were already in place along the park’s waterfront, effectively providing those who arrived early a front row seat to the launch.
With the lot full, we were lucky to find a parking space less than a block down the street from the park. A car had just pulled out and other cars were circling for a spot. Our timing perfect, we pulled straight in. We parked approximately 400 yards from the waterfront.
We met our neighbors in the cars next to us; one was a family from St. Paul, Minnesota, the other an older couple from Ohio; both having arrived earlier in the evening. Like us, all were making preparations to sleep in their cars.
Once settled, we walked to a nearby drug store to buy folding chairs and other supplies. The cashier told us that by tomorrow it would be utter madness. “You won’t be able to move,” she said. We walked across the street to a pizza joint for a pie to go and went back to our mobile motel room, our Saturn Vue. It just struck me that the name of the vehicle was somewhat appropriate — Saturn being a planet, of course, and VUE, an acronym for “Visual User Environment”.
Before turning in for the night, we walked over to the park. I was struck by how many older people were willing to put up with the discomfort of spending a long night (and a long following day) in lawn chairs or in tents. One elderly woman with a small tent was a veteran of many launches and the numerous official launch patches on her jacket were a testament to her dedication.
As we crawled into the cramped aft end of our vehicle, a few rainsqualls with lightening passed through. I wondered how those sitting in lawn chairs at the waterfront fared. More squalls were predicted through the morning hours, but the weather at launch time was forecasted to be clear.
The night passed quickly but with little sleep. A Saturn Vue is not comparable to a Hilton or even the cheapest budget motel. But no hotel had a better location on that night.
T-Minus 9 hours, 40 minutes
All night long people walked past our parked car, the park was beginning to fill. We were up at 5:30 a.m. and by 6 a.m. had our brand-new folding chairs in place in the second row back from the water’s edge. We had barely wedged ourselves in, checking with the people around us to make sure they didn’t feel as though we were encroaching on them. I had assumed that in a few hours, it wouldn’t matter — the semi-orderly arrangement of lawn chairs that currently existed would likely be overrun in the minutes before the launch. From our position, we could clearly see the glow of launch pad 39A in the pre-dawn darkness.
T-Minus 4 hours, 7 minutes
The park is rapidly filling up. Vendors have set up booths offering everything from souvenirs to Chinese takeout food. Parking is madness. One lot near the park was offering space for $30. Some people reported that owners of parking lots in the city were charging up to $100, simply to park.
There are many children here. Parents could be overheard talking about how, with the shuttle program ending, they felt it was important to bring their kids to see the launch. Many of the kids would probably rather watch it on TV, but hopefully it will be something for them to remember.
From our vantage point in Space View Park, thousands of people could be seen lining the Max Brewer Bridge, a mile or so away. On my phone, I received a message from Tanya Doran, executive director of the Greater Riverview Chamber of Commerce, saying she was in the park, too. Though the likelihood of seeing her was nil in the growing crowd, I thought it was cool to know she was out there somewhere.
T-Minus 3 hours
The city of Titusville had installed loudspeakers in Space View Park in order for the crowd to hear the launch progression. The loud din of thousands of voices quickly quieted whenever a voice came through the speakers. At roughly 12:20 p.m., the voice carried bad news. Due to a problem with a heater, the launch would be scrubbed for at least 48 hours. A soft “Awww” sound went through the crowd and moments later, people started gathering up their stuff to leave. I’m fairly certain that some of the people in tents, however, chose to stay.
With thousands of people leaving, the roads leading out of Titusville were overwhelmed with the volume of traffic. It took Michelle and me more than an hour to get out of Titusville, and we experienced heavy traffic all the way into the Orlando area.
Of greatest note, perhaps, was the attitude of the crowd in the aftermath of the scrubbed launch. While there was disappointment that it did not take place as planned, there was little regret. It seemed that everyone in the crowd preferred the safety of the astronauts to their own self-satisfaction in seeing Endeavour lift off. For Michelle and me, it was a 24-hour adventure in driving the 140 miles to Titusville, spending the night in the car, living many hours among the rapidly growing crowd in the park and then driving hours more in the traffic to our home in South Hillsborough. With President Obama arriving for the launch, and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the wife of mission commander Mark Kelly who was seriously injured during an assassination attempt in January, already in attendance, the pressure on NASA administrators to launch must have been enormous. It is greatly to their credit that they ignored it, choosing the course of caution and safety.
Among the many things that made the trip worth the effort was meeting interesting people in the park and discovering the vast array of products that NASA offers on the web. Since we waited for hours for the launch I had plenty of time to peruse the nasa.gov website via my smart phone. The space agency is also active on every major social network, including Twitter and Facebook. In addition to their excellent website, they offer outstanding applications for smart phones and tablets such as the iPad. Their willingness and eagerness to reach out to the public is impressive, as is the technology they deploy in doing so. Finding their site was particularly useful while waiting in the park. Not only could I see a live countdown clock on my phone, I could know what was happening real time while reading the launch blog.
Earlier in the day, prior to the launch being scrubbed, I asked my wife Michelle if the liftoff is cancelled, would she be willing to do this again. “Yes,” she replied without hesitation. To us the cancellation of the launch didn’t outweigh the adventure. There is an indefinable feeling of pride with such an event. The courage and daring, the willingness to push the envelope of human discovery, the sheer Americana of it all, with dozens of U.S. flags flying around the park and the knowledge that a peaceful American effort is leading the world in space — that feeling was palpable in the park. And that feeling wasn’t diminished in the least by the scrubbed launch.
Was it worth the trip? Yes, absolutely. The rescheduled launch attempt will take place at 11:21 a.m. on May 10. If that holds, you’ll find us in Space View Park on Monday night, preparing to cheer on Endeavour and her crew as she makes her final voyage of discovery into the last frontier.