Out to Launch

and Back Again

Endeavour with her support structure rolled away, April 26, 2011. Image copyright Carolyn Collins Petersen.

Well, we went down to Florida to film the launch of space shuttle Endeavour (Mission STS-134) a week ago, but as everybody who follows the space program knows, the launch got scrubbed a few hours before scheduled blast-off due to a failed component deep inside the orbiter. (You can read more about that here.)

Mark and I are accredited press (covering for Sky & Telescope.com) and were also going to film the launch in fulldome video.  We still plan to return and cover the launch festivities, as soon as NASA announces the date for the next try.In fact, S&T ran a pre-launch story I wrote, and I have a couple of other stories just waiting to be finished and uploaded after launch (or whenever it goes).

It wasn’t our first launch visit; that was in 1983, followed by a spectacular launch visit in 1993. We are pretty excited about seeing this one, since it was the shuttle that took up the first Hubble Space Telescope servicing crew, and that’s the second launch I saw. At the time, I was working on an HST instrument team, so it was a pretty personal experience, knowing that the crew was going to be working to make things right so we could do our science. Now, not quite 18 years later, I get to see these things as a science writer and documentary producer, but I still get as excited as I always have about seeing a launch.

One of the coolest experiences we had during the run-up to the scrubbed launch day a week or so back was the opportunity to go out to the pad and watch as the support structure rolled away to reveal Endeavour sitting there like a moth on her external tank. The press folks at the Kennedy Space Center arranged for a press visit and so we found ourselves standing there, a few hundred yards from the orbiter in the dark of night, watching as the structure slowly rolled away. It was — and I say this channeling my inner space geek — one of the most awesome sights!

We didn’t even mind the mosquitos and muggy air; the sight of the orbiter was just stunning. And, I was very aware that this was an experience that not everyone gets to have — the opportunity to be that close to an orbiter the day before it thunders up into the sky on the backs of its rockets and fuel tanks.  Geek that I am, I just drank in the site and didn’t want to leave.

While we were waiting for the servicing structure to roll back, I got into an interesting conversation with a woman and her husband who had come out as part of the NASA launch Tweetup group. They’d been invited along on the press tour to the launch pad. Her name was Clare and her husband was Sean. He looked familiar — at first I thought he was a science writer I’d met at a meeting earlier this year.  We chatted about writing for Twitter and Facebook, and since it was something of a long wait, Seth went around taking pictures before the retraction started. Mark was nearby, with our allsky camera ready to start shooting when the retraction started.

Clare and I ended up talking about space launches, Griffith Observatory (they live in LA), and a lot of other topics of mutual interest to people who are standing around waiting for something cool to happen that they know is a rare experience and worth waiting for. Turns out Clare and her husband are fairly well-known actors: Clare Grant and Seth Green, and apparently, very much into the space program — as Mark and I are.  I enjoyed the conversation we had very much and it was fun to get to know some new people who shared the same passion with us.

Conversations like that, shared with people from other walks of life, really remind me just how much the exploration of space really touches people.  The Kennedy Space Center was swarming, not just with press folk, but also the Tweeters — who were also from everywhere and of all ages. They got special tours and chances to see things that many of us who have covered space launches for years have seen before — but are new to them.  I felt bad for them when the launch was scrubbed because it’s not clear that they will get to come back for the next attempt. I hope they can, because a launch is an amazing experience.

I plan to go back, and I hope that all the others who made the trip can come back, too.  While NASA isn’t shutting down space exploration, these last two launches are special to all of us who see space exploration as an important thing.  The launches mark the end of one era, and hopefully, the beginning of a new one in humanity’s steps out to the stars.