Posted by: Jeff Rhodes | May 17, 2010

Watching Discovery

I drove down to Cape Canaveral to watch the Space Shuttle Discovery launch in the early morning hours of Monday, April 5, 2010.  This was one of those things that I was going to do “one of these days” for twenty years.  With only four shuttle missions left, the time had come.  Cameron (6), my dad (60), and I loaded the car on Easter Sunday about 5 PM, picked up Scott Penner and his oldest son, Lane (4) and hit the road for the Cape.   Our destination was Jetty Park, at Port Canaveral.  As the name would imply, this park was on the jetty where the cruise ships exit Port Canaveral into the Atlantic.  About eight miles south of the launch pad, it looked like it would be a good place.

After an eight and a half hour drive, we arrived at Jetty Park at about 2 in the morning.  Traffic was light, but the parking lot by the pier was already beginning to fill up.  On the way in we passed lots of cars and RVs parked on the Hwy 528 causeway bridge – which had a good view of the launch, as well.

Upon arrival, we woke the kids, and got out to stretch and scope the place out a little.  Although there is a long pier at the end of the jetty, we determined that the view would be as good from the sea wall where our car was parked.  After a restroom and a snack break, the five of us settled into the minivan for a nap.  Cameron and Lane slept, and the adults may have nodded off for a few minutes here and there, but no good rest can really come in a minivan seat.

The weather was cool and there was a little breeze blowing.  The cloud cover that was in place at about 3 AM had broken up by 4 and the stars were out.  The parking lot really began to fill by then and probably a few thousand people were milling about.  At 5, I woke Cameron and we got the lawn chairs and the cooler out and walked over to the sea wall for a good view.  I could tell Cameron was excited, and I knew that I was – although I was trying to contain it, knowing that there are a lot of things that can scrub the launch.

Our view of the launch pad was obscured by a small hill across the canal from where we sat.  But, you could see the faint glow of the lights from the facility.  At 6:04 AM, we were treated to a fly over of the International Space Station – Discovery’s ultimate destination.  Appearing as a bright, moving star, the ISS flew right by the moon and remained visible for about three minutes until it disappeared over the eastern horizon of the Atlantic.

Then it was time for Discovery to catch it!  The head start that orbital mechanics had given the ISS in this race, Discovery was about to overcome with the help of about 3.5 million pounds of rocket fuel.  My brother, who was watching via computer from Texas, called me with a countdown and play by play.  At “zero” the hill obstructing our view of the launch lit up like daylight in the predawn darkness.

There was no sound – only light.    About a second later, the “sun” rose and a huge fireball climbed above the hill.  Just like sunrise, only in super fast motion.  As it rose above the horizon, it turned into an upside down candle with flames shooting from the bottom and a long thin contrail extending to the ground in the darkness.  About forty seconds after the silent sunrise, the sound wave arrived.  There was the loud boom of the booster ignition and then a crackling rumble as the shuttle arched over toward the northeast.  The bright sun effect continued, constantly growing smaller, but no less bright.   We watched the boosters separate at the two minute mark.  They looked like tiny glowing dots as they fell away from the bright glowing star that was now the shuttle as it continued its ascent, now 100,000 feet up and 100 miles away.

Within just a minute or so more, it was gone over the horizon.  All that was left was an enormous contrail with one end at ground level, eight miles from where we stood and the other end in space, somewhere over the North Atlantic.  For the next hour, the contrail twisted and spiraled in the winds aloft – the rising sun painting it in all the colors of the rainbow.

What an awesome experience.  It may sound crazy to stay up all night and drive sixteen hours roundtrip to see a two minute fireworks show – but it was worth it.  My son will forever remember seeing the Discovery liftoff with his dad and granddad, as will I, with them.

The video here is my very amateur attempt at capturing the moment.  Doesn’t do it justice, but it does convey some sense of the event.

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