With half open eyes, and in a semi-awake state of mind, I spotted the now familiar 52-story Vertical Assembly building at the Kennedy Space Center. It was three a.m. eastern time, and I had just flown in the day before. My body was wondering why I was just waking up when normally I would be falling asleep at this time. It was confused and for a fleeting second so was I. But then I saw the innocuous sign on the side of the road. “Days till Count Down: 0.” And a small smile crept across my face. This was finally the day I would get to witness history and create some of my very own.
But our story (and photo above) starts seventeen days prior, where a small, but important group of components in the Aft Load Control Assembly No. 2 (ALCA-2) caused the cancellation of the STS-134 mission launch 4 hours prior to launch, disappointing not only me, but hundreds of thousands of spectators and especially six eager astronauts strapped into the worlds largest bottle rocket. But as I head someone at NASA say, we may not do it fast, but we do it safely. Knowing that a faulty ALCA would put the six astronauts in possible danger should have been an easy decision to stay off the disappointment of traveling half way across the country and spending hundreds of dollars on airfare, rental car, and hotel nights. But along with those hundreds of thousands of others, I knew that their safety was more important then witnessing one of man’s greatest accomplishments…a Space Shuttle launch. So I put my disappointment aside and re booked my tickets to come back again for the next launch attempt.
Having only seen a launch on TV before, I was not sure what to expect. Nor appreciate the full complexity to prepare six organisms made up of 60% water and fully dependant on oxygen into a vessel strapped to a glider that sits on 2.5 million gallon of highly combustible fuel making it the worlds largest roman candle.
The days leading up to each launch attempt, I was immersed into all things NASA. Me and 800 other press from around the world gathered into one building and absorbed facts about the shuttle, it’s multi-billion dollar Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer payload, the intricacies of launch windows, numerous checks and milestones needed to proceed with a safe and successful launch, and we all had a sideline seat.
We had sign up sheets to interview astronauts, press releases handed out several times a day, photo opportunities to view the major phases of the launch process. The later of which interested me the most. And since I was out there twice, I got to know those processes very well. The four major photo opportunities were the rotating service structure(RSS) rollback, the Astronaut walk out, and the launch itself.
The first week that I was there, I was like a fish out of water. It seemed like controlled chaos. I knew where to pick up my press credentials, and then was able to find out the Press Center on my own. But after that, it was just a whirr of papers and people. Luckily I had a friend to navigate me through the uncharted waters. Ben Wang, an accomplished photographer and fellow blogger from the Bay Area had arrived a few days prior and was able to show me the ropes. He guided me through the maze of contractors and everyone who had a part on the space shuttle or space station or was apart of the payload going up. My stack of brochures was getting taller and taller. But it was information that just barely told the story of the complexity of launching these six men into the darkness of space.
The first major shoot was the RSS rollback. This was set for 730pm, 24 hours before the scheduled launch. Since we would be less then a quarter mile away from the space shuttle on the launch pad, security was in full effect. Bomb sniffing dogs checked the equipment of the 100 photographers who would be transported to the site via official NASA buses.
We arrived a couple hours before to get screened, but alas, so did the volatile Florida weather. Quickly a Phase Two lightning strike warning was issued and we were told to clear any open space and get indoors immediately.
Initial estimates were that the lightning storm would pass within the hour. But that stretched to 6 hours. And so we sat in the bus watching the lightning strike all around us, illuminating the dark skies. But after midnight, the remaining few were taken out to see Endeavor unveiled. And what a striking sight it was. A beautiful white shuttle against a dark black sky bathed in xenon lights.
The hundred or so photographers jockeyed for optimal position. With the late night timing, we all needed tripods for our cameras. Which of course led to the occasional accidental bump of another tripod on accident in the darkness of night. With the long delay, lack of food, and sleep, I overhead a few interesting conversations with choice words, but we all go our shots in the end. Plus the entire RSS rollback took approximately 20 minutes. Here is a time lapse shot of the structure moving.
And after just 30 minutes, we were taken back on the bus and set off to our respective hotels.
The next day would start less then 6 hours after we left. A short sleep, quick shower, and a stop at the 24 hour donut shop and I was back on my way to Kennedy for the 6am line up and search for the 11am astronaut walk out. We all jockeyed for position.
This would be the final time any of the astronauts would see people not directly associated with the launch. They walked out and were greeted like rock stars. Cheers, clapping, and a barrage of flashes from the international media.
They stopped for less then a minute in front of their 1949 AstroVan for a quick wave and then their fully armed escort, including a helicopter escort, was on its 20 minute drive to Launch Pad 39B.
It would less then 10 minutes later that they would get the news that the mission had been scrubbed. Some folks on the bus said they saw the Astrovan pass us on their way back to Life Support, but I did not. But within 5 hours, the crew were on board their aircraft and flying back to Houston. I did the same not knowing when the next launch date would be scheduled. But I knew that when they did decide to go up again, that I would be back at Kennedy to witness history.