Having just arrived in Florida the previous afternoon we were up at 3am to drive to the Kennedy Space Center, now that may sound crazy when you have just arrived and suffering from jet lag right? Well actually it worked out perfectly as Florida being 5 hours behind the UK 3am meant we were really getting up at 8am and as we had gone to bed early Florida time anyway it actually meant we totally skipped jetlag by out bodyclocks still being on BST!
We were on our way to see the launch of NASA’s 99th Space shuttle mission, STS 106 and had tickets to take a coach far nearer the launch pad than the public can get in their cars!
The bad news however though was walking out of our hotel to the car it was drizzling, and we just seen on TV the local news were only giving a 30-40% chance of weather being acceptable for the shuttle launch.
Undeterred we drove there in our fantastic rental convertible we had treated ourselves too, we thought lets go in style and also if we get stuck in, as the Americans would say “some bad ass traffic jam on the highway” at least with the roof rolled down we could still have a great view of the launch!
We needn’t have worried as had a very good journey to the Kennedy Space Center the only worry being the weather however upon getting out of the car upon arriving it wasn’t raining any more and I even noticed a star, however as it started to get light it was still very cloudy, enough to potentially scrap a launch.
We showed our tickets which we had ordered a couple of months ago and spent a small fortune to get them shipped to the UK by UPS as NASA would not send them to us by normal post, and boarded the coach to the launch viewing area about 7 miles away from launch pad 39B, unfortunately 2 miles further away than 39A that is used for most launches but due to a busy schedule they had to use 39B for some launches and it was still the closest you could get unless you were media, NASA employee or knew the astronauts!
Upon arriving there was still 2 and a half hours to go till launch but things were looking much better weather wise the thick clouds gradually started to clear! We looked around trying to see the shuttle and for a while were looking at totally the wrong launchpad, one that was much closer but turned out to be one of NASA’s unmanned rockets on the pad, we eventually noticed the shuttle Atlantis in the distance, while listening to live NASA communications of the astronauts getting strapped into Atlantis!
It wasn’t long before it was less than an hour to go till launch, weather had become a Go and all systems on the shuttle at this stage were a GO!
Keeping every finger and toe crossed as the next hour ticked down, Excitement really builds during the final 9 mins of the countdown and despite the weather now being a go for launch this is the most crucial stage of the countdown where so many systems are checked and any one minor problem discovered could still potentially scrub the launch for the day.
Even during the final minute I was keeping everything crossed for a launch knowing that until those solid rocket boosters were lit it could still be scrubbed, especially as I remembered an old school friends disappointment when he was at this very viewing site in 1993 and the launch got cancelled at T- 3 seconds after the main engines had ignited but before the boosters.
Massive cheers went around as Atlantis climbed, at first silently into the sky, it would take several seconds for the sounds of the launch to reach us, the brightness from the launch plume was incredible and something TV pictures can not do justice, and then came the earth shattering noise & rumble of the powerful rocket carrying 7 humans and heavy cargo into Space! It wasn’t long before we then heard the double clap of the sonic boom as Atlantis broke through the Sound Barrier. (Something I never would have dreamed at that point that I would do myself in exactly 2 years and 2 days time, but on Concorde not the Shuttle!)
Just over 2 minuets after launch at an altitude of 150,000ft (28 miles), 4 times higher than a commercial aircraft and travelling at 3200 mph the Solid Rocket boosters separated from the Shuttle
Over the next 6 minuets Atlantis would continue on her 3 main engines accelerating to 17,500 and reaching Earth orbit, but sadly for us once the boosters had gone it was just a tiny dot on the horizon and soon went totally out of view.
So it was back on the coaches and half an hour later back at the space centre we were able to watch live NASA pictures and communications of Atlantis & the 7 astronauts in zero gravity, now successfully in orbit somewhere over Europe, and it was so amazing to think that you have just seen that ship and 7 humans leave the planet with your own eyes from just 7 miles away from you!
We had a look around the Kennedy Space centre visitor centre for a few hours including the impressive full size space shuttle mock up before sadly we had to leave as our convertible car we rented had to be returned in a few hours back in Orlando, we had an fantastic drive back on the highway with the roof down, exciting but not quite as exciting as a Space Shuttle Launch!