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Discovery’s Last Hurrah

On February 24, 2011 the space shuttle had a successful launch – it also happened to be Discovery’s last flight.

It was actually coincidental that I was in Florida on the day of the launch. My friends and I had made plans ages ago for the Disney Princess half-marathon. Some of our group were running in it and some of us were cheering the runners. Five of us would be flying in the afternoon of the 25th and once I learned that was the day of the launch, we decided we had to try to see it. We didn’t have a lot of time to figure out how and where to see it because of our flights, but try we would.

Read about our adventure after the jump, wherein we cut things very close! The photo below, though (SPOILERS!!) should tell you that we made it on time. Barely.


Once we’d all landed in Orlando, I hustled my friends through the airport and we were on the road and heading eastward by 2pm. That gave us 2 hours and 55 minutes – and it looked like there was a very good chance the shuttle would launch exactly on time, so we couldn’t count on delays there to give us more time. We drove out of the airport and immediately into heavy traffic. Apparently everyone else had the same idea about deciding to watch the launch last minute. We got off the highway and found a smaller road heading east that would eventually take us to Rt 50, which lets out right in Titusville. This worked great until we got to 50, which was unsurprisingly also heavily trafficked.

At last we made it into Titusville – I had a couple of places in mind to watch the launch. Space View Park would surely be crowded, and it was north up Rt. 1, but we could try it if we had time. Closer to us on Rt. 1 was another spot a friend had recommended. However, by 20 minutes until the launch, we hadn’t even made it to Rt. 1 yet! People were walking on either side of us, and making better progress, so we decided maybe we’d better do that as well and see how far we could get. We made a left into a shopping plaza, which had plenty of spots – and then walked as fast as we could towards Rt. 1. We made it, but there was no where to really stand (and I wasn’t sure we’d be able to see), so we crossed to the median. We briefly debated staying there, but decided to cross all the way to the other side of the road. People had their cars pulled over on the side of the road there, and we were able to find a spot amongst them on a slight rise that sandwiched a clear view of the launch pad between plants and people and vehicles.

As we’d been making our way through the crowd, we could hear from the car radios surrounding us that we were coming out of the T-9 minute hold in the countdown. By the time we got to our spot, it must have been only five minutes til liftoff! (Having all the car radios playing was really helpful for knowing what was going on.) We busied ourselves getting our cameras ready and trying to figure out which of the two launch pads were going to be used (it was the one visibly closer to the VAB). I gave my husband the little video camera I won at Blogworld and I readied my camera and iPhone, one in each hand, pointing them the right way and being ready to just blindly shoot as many pics as I could. I didn’t want to miss watching it because I was fiddling with cameras!

In 2009, when I watched the Hubble Servicing Mission 4 (SM-4) launch from the pier at Space View Park, we were isolated from noise, to the point where we couldn’t even hear the countdown. We had no warning til we started to see smoke billowing from the horizon. This time though, we got to count down with all the people around us – and then, exactly on time, the shuttle blasted off!


The shuttle itself is nearly lost in the blaze of fire from the solid rocket boosters. It’s a bright glow that moves swiftly up, leaving a very visible contrail. It’s a beautiful sight and both times I’ve been lucky enough to see it, it’s brought tears to my eyes.

We were very lucky that the day ended up being very clear, with only a trace of clouds in the sky. (During our drive from Orlando, it had looked like it was going to be cloudy.)


By contrast, the day of the SM-4 launch was much cloudier, and a collective groan had gone up from the crowd when the shuttle disappeared into a cloud. It was followed by a cheer as it came out again – and then a final groan when it disappeared again for good. Added to that, the trajectory took that shuttle away from us giving the folks watching from the Causeway a better view than we had.

This time, the shuttle arced to the left giving us a perfect view of nearly the entire ride to space.


The middle part of the contrail seemed to glow in the sun.


About a minute and twenty seconds into the launch, a low rumble rolled over us. The sound from the launch had finally arrived and a cheer went up from the crowd as we listened to the event we’d just seen. It was amazing! (Incidentally, I believe we were about 12 miles away from the launch site.)


Finally the contrail thinned and we heard the announcement of SRB sep, or the separation of the Solid Rocket Boosters. This signals the end of a dangerous phase of launch – and I know that ever since Challenger, I always hold my breath until those SRBs are gone. I wasn’t alone, I’m sure, as another cheer went up from the crowd.


Though you can’t make the shuttle out in my photos anymore, we were still able to follow the tiny white dot it made in the sky for a while longer before it finally faded from sight.

We stuck around a few minutes more to admire the smoke cloud and take some more photos:


Maggie at the launch.

After that, it was back to the car and back into traffic. It took us what seemed like forever to make it to I-95 north. For the SM-4 launch, we’d tried to avoid the local traffic by shooting up to New Smyrna Beach and a favorite restaurant there. That plan worked this time too, once we finally got to I-95. We didn’t know just how well though, until we got back to the hotel around 10pm. We were checking in, when a co-worker of mine, our JWST education specialist, walked into the hotel lobby. I had no idea he was staying at the same hotel as we were, though I did know he’d planned a last minute trip to see the launch. He’d just gotten in recently – it’d taken him and his friend some 4 hours to get back from Titusville!

Anyway – even with all the traffic, it was SO worthwhile, and we were also extremely lucky to have gotten there in time to see the launch. And to have had the launch be on time so that we’d be able to catch it!

The video my husband took turned out really well. There is some noise from the wind over the microphone, but listen for the rumble of the launch around 1:35 or so. You’ll hear a cheer also. At the very end, you’ll see SRB sep and hear more celebration from the crowd.

This is NOT my video, but I wish it was!! This guy got an amazing video of Thursday’s launch from an airplane. Their flight was delayed by two hours, but I guess it ended up being worth it! Don’t miss this video, it’s amazing.

This excellent MSNBC article talks about witnessing the shuttle launch from above. For example, this is a frame grab from a video shot from a helium balloon launched to image the shuttle Discovery as it transited the stratosphere.

The launch from space
Credit: Quest for Stars / Challenger Center

If you can catch one of the next two final launches, you definitely should. STS 134 launches on April 19th (that’s the one with Mark Kelly commanding), and STS 135 launches on June 28th July 8th.

And after that… who knows?


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