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My First and Last Shuttle Launch

I am a child of the space age.  I arrived in the world just days before the first Saturn rocket tests.  At the tender age of five I was woken and brought downstairs in the middle of the night to watch Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.  As a teenager in 1978, I visited the United States for the first time and went to Kennedy Space centre.  The mighty Apollo Saturn V still lived outside back then and NASA was busy trying to get the shuttle program operational.  As if that wasn’t enough to turn me into a space nerd then I had the combined efforts of Messrs Lucas, Spielberg, Roddenberry and Anderson to help me along.

Despite many trips to Florida since then, I had never been during a launch.  With just the final few Shuttle launches to go, I never expected that opportunity to arrive.  A few weeks back I was jealously watching tweets from Stu Maschwitz and Trey Ratcliff as they waited for the take-off of STS-134.  I was looking at the mission specs and wondering whether I might be in Florida in time for the landing.  Unfortunately for Stu and Trey, a combination of weather and technical issues delayed the launch a couple of weeks.  This meant I would be in the right place at the right time for the launch - a rare combination for me.  So rare in fact, that I was pretty sure that something would come along and send my plans pear-shaped.

The first small problem was that the launch happened to coincide with the key note at SapphireNow, the conference I was actually in Orlando to attend.  To be honest, I didn’t struggle with that dilemma anywhere near as much as I should have done.  My father was going to come along for the trip.  He had tried to get to a launch many years ago and got stuck on the toll road.  So an early start was in order to travel the 50 miles or so to Titusville.

No vantage point is wasted 

Launch day dawned and the NASA website still said it was a go for launch.  We stuck our selected viewing site into the sat nav and headed off.  This trip was not designed to be a photo-oriented trip so I was pretty lightly armed camera-wise.  I had only taken my Olympus XZ-1 with me which maxes out at 112mm.  So I had borrowed my Dad’s Lumix TZ7 for a bit of extra reach whilst he had his Panny palmcorder.  The worries over traffic turned out to be unfounded and we reached Titusville in good time.  Parking was another matter.  Most of the public parking was already taken, which left enterprising souls renting out spots on private ground for $20-30.  Whether they had any title to that land is a moot point but after 3 laps of the one way system we were ready to take that chance.

Space View Park

Space View Park was already pretty crowded as we walked in.  Whilst the weather was no issue for take-off, it was not brilliant for spectating.  There was a layer of low cloud which meant the viewing opportunities were going to be short.  This was not helped by us not being exactly sure where on the peninsula opposite we were supposed to be looking.  We could see the VAB through the haze but not the shuttle itself.  There didn’t seem to be a consensus of direction amongst those with more elaborate gear on which way to point.

The Vehicle Assembly Building

As the countdown continued the crowd’s anticipation grew.  On the jetty opposite there was a relayed PA from the Space Centre but we were to far from it to hear details.  It was more felt through the increasing buzz from the crowd radiating out.  To get a clear view above the crowds my Dad was using a convenient lamppost as a support with his display angled down.  I was using his shoulder to get the TZ7 high enough and could see virtually nothing on its fixed display.  Suddenly there was a roar from the crowd.  It turned out the launch position was slightly behind a palm bush from our position.  I struggled to find it on the Lumix.  I squeezed off a few speculative shots and then decided to just watch the final couple of seconds as the giant torch supported by a thick column of steam speared its way through that inconveniently low cloud barrier.  One of the problems with being of a photographic persuasion is that you often only see events secondhand.  Sometimes you have to overcome your urge to record and just leave it to your eyes and your brain. 

One of my speculative shots paid off

Just as we thought the show was over the noise arrived.  The source of the aural assault that surrounded us had already departed from view.  The only trace of its progress being the stripe across the clouds, the shadow cast by its vertical ascent across the top of the cloud layer.


The plume shadowNASA Footage of the Launch, see more on NASA TV

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