Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Launch of the final Space Shuttle

Bit of a late follow-up, I've been busy catching up on things since I got back last week.

Anyway it all went fairly well considering everything was organised at the last minute.

The flights were fairly uneventful, except the first leg to Sydney where we got in 90 minutes late because of wind... 45 mins AFTER check-in had closed for my flight to LA! The transfer bus had already left for the international terminal so I had to run around Amazing Race-style to get there.

I got stuck in the middle row for the long 14 hour flight (both ways!) and that wasn't so fun. Luckily they had a movies-on-demand thing and watching 5 movies in a row tends to pass the time. At one point the flight tracking screen said there was a 365km/h tailwind which is pretty quick even for the jet stream.

After 32 hours without sleep, I finally arrived at the hotel at 8:30pm. Then after 4 hours sleep I had to be up again at 2:30am to catch a taxi to catch a tour bus to catch a space shuttle launch. The first hour of the bus ride went quickly but then we hit the traffic, and for the next hour we crawled the last few miles.

At 6am we got to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, which is about 11km from the launch pad. The launch was scheduled for 11:30am but they still only gave it a 30% chance due to the weather. The visitor complex has a bunch of displays including the Rocket Garden and a space shuttle simulator, so it was easy to spend 5 hours while waiting for the launch. Photos here:

Even one hour before the launch they were NO GO because of the low cloud, but somehow it all came good at literally the 11th hour, and they started the 9-minute countdown to a huge roar from the crowd. I couldn't hear it at the time, but apparently the countdown was stopped with only 30 seconds to go because of a malfunctioning sensor, but they were able to double-check it wasn't a problem and continue.

From the visitor complex, the launch pad itself isn't visible unfortunately, so you couldn't tell exactly where it would appear over the trees. It turns out that everyone was looking in slightly the wrong direction, so that when it finally appeared, it happened to be right behind the only tree in my view! To make it worse, the shuttle disappeared fairly quickly into the cloud layer and it was over just like that. The rumble of the rockets finally hit us 30 seconds after lift off, and was still quite powerful even at that distance. So it wasn't a picture perfect lift-off, but they were lucky to get away at all, plus the vibe was still amazing and I was happy with that.

Afterwards the bus took about 2.5 hours to get back to Orlando - not bad considering a million people were leaving the area. On the way out of the complex, I saw a wild alligator living in a water-filled ditch between car parks. The place is infested with them.

The next day was for catching up on sleep, and on the Sunday I went to Univeral Studios. There are about 10 theme parks around Orlando (2x Universal, 2x Sea World, and about 6 Disney World parks!) but it was a good choice, I spent the whole day going on rides. Going by yourself is not so bad, and you get to skip a lot of the queues.

It was a long way to go for only a few days, but worth it I think; I would have regretted it otherwise. It still amazes me how thousands of people can bring millions of pieces and factors together all at the right time in the right order down to the precise second when they light those SRBs. The shuttle is an incredible feat of human engineering and watching the launch was kind of bittersweet, knowing that it was the last one ever. (looks like a few of the comments on there echo my sentiments)

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