Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Space Center Tour and Discovery Launch

Well, we headed for Cape Canaveral on Wednesday, the morning of March 11. We met Linda and John, found and parked at our bus pick up point, then went to get an early dinner before leaving at 6:00 for the launch viewing sight. As we were eating, I received a call from Kathy saying there was yet another launch scrub. This time it was a hydrogen leak in the external tank. They rescheduled for Sunday, March 14th. Since we were staying at the Cape overnight, Thursday morning we took the Kennedy Space Center tour.

We arrived at the center when they opened at 9:00 and started the day with the three-stop bus trip. First visit was at Launch Complex 39 observation gantry. In the center of the three-story gantry, hanging between two floors, is a shuttle main engine that was retired after 15 space flights. This arrangement gives you an idea of the immense size of the motors used to propel the space craft.

Observation Gantry

Partial view of one of the shuttle engines

From this platform, you are able to view launch pad A and B. Launch pad B is being redesigned for the next generation Aries rocket. The first test flight for the Aries is scheduled for July of this year. Discovery was perched on pad A. The angle from here allows a view of the permanent scaffolding, built to service the shuttle and allow access to the interior. All we could see of the actual shuttle components was the top of the rust colored external tank poking above the metal skeleton. Linda did take a picture through the stationary binoculars located at the top level.

Launch pad A with shuttle

Launch pad A. Linda took this through the binoculars.

This scale model demonstrated how the launch pad permanent scaffolding and the rotating scaffolding operated in conjunction with the shuttle

This stop also has a couple of movies about past missions that gave me goose bumps. They are a must see when you come.

Next stop on the tour was at the Apollo/Saturn V Center. Here is a full sized 363 foot Saturn V rocket suspended overhead, with each section divided where that part would have expended its fuel and been jettisoned. This is the same display that we saw in January at the Huntsville Alabama NASA center. I have to say it was just as impressive the second time around.

In addition to information about the Apollo missions and Saturn V rocket, there were several different displays here that were not at Huntsville. One of them was a cleat from the giant crawler that carries the shuttle, with the external tank, and the two booster rockets attached, from the assembly building to the launch pad. This crawler has 16 motors propelling eight tracks, two on each corner. It is 131 feet long and 114 feet wide and weights 6,000,000 pounds. Its top speed is 1 mile per hour, but it usually takes about 8 hours to make the 3 ½ mile trip because it stops frequently to let the tracks cool off.

Saturn V rocket engines

one cleat from the crawler track

The special track constructed for the crawler to travel from the assembly building to the launch pad

On the way to the final tour stop at the International Space Station Center, we passed the Shuttle Assembly building. This huge facility is taller than the Statue of Liberty, as high as a 52 story building, in fact each star on the U.S. flag, that is painted on the side of the building, is 6 feet tall, tip to tip. This is where the individual pieces of the launch vehicle are put together.

Assembly building

Two of the giant crawlers in the background

The barge that transports the large external tank to the launch site

The last bus tour stop was to the Space Station Center. Inside we were treated to a view into the actual clean room where the Space Station components are assembled. Today, there were lots of things that looked “in progress” but not a worker in sight. Maybe they had the day off after finishing the latest shuttle components that were going up in Discover, whenever it goes.

The other end of the building contained mock ups of Space Station components where astronauts live, sleep, eat, and perform scientific experiments. The crew usually remain in the Space Station for three to six months at a time. Without the IMAX film, that showed the astronauts propelling themselves from point to point, using toe holds to keep themselves stationary while working, and playing games with floating food, I would not have had as much appreciation for what working in these modules was like. The two IMAX films were so good we bought them to bring home to our family, mostly Jacob.

Space Station model

Inside the "clean room"

Mock up of space station science experiments

Back at the main visitors center, we caught both IMAX films, Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D and Space Station 3D. By that time it was 4 o’clock, so we zipped over to the Astronaut Hall of Fame, which is located across the river. A huge amount of information is contained here. Write ups and pictures about past missions, emergency repairs and aborts, time lines, biographies of the men who have accomplished all the space travel missions, and much more,. We were all surprised at how many problems that were overcome during flights in space and just how few ended in tragedy.

There were more things we could have seen at the center but by 6 pm we were hungry and tired and our brains could not take in any more information. We returned to Blue Springs, in Orange City so Linda and John could see the manatees we had been so excited about. However, since we had been there two weeks before, it had warmed up enough that all of the manatees had left the spring and moved into the river.

Sunday morning we were hopeful that it was a “go” so we traveled back to the Marriott Residence Inn where the bus was to pick us up. While we were waiting, the Inn had the TV tuned to the NASA station and we got to watch a live feed of the astronauts being positioned into the space shuttle. Wow, was that impressive to see how much goes into just settling those guys into their seats.

a live feed TV picture of the pilot, Lee Archambeau, being positioned in his seat

The bus finally took off at 5:30. Our viewing site was actually at the Apollo/Saturn V building that we had been to on Thursday. We had plenty of time to go inside the building and take more pictures. However, when we were back in our seats, with only 5 minutes till launch, Marlin discovered his camera battery was DEAD! After a few curses we relaxed and went with the countdown. Linda was taking a video and we were to receive pictures from NASA in our email.

Count down clock

viewing stands

Poster of STS 119 Discovery's crew

The assembly building from the viewing stands.

From the viewing stands we looked across a small body of water toward launch complexes 39 A and B. This site is 3 1/2 miles away from the launch pad and as close as any visitors are allowed. Our view looked at the back side of launch pad A where the permanent scaffolding is erected. and even with the binoculars, there were no shuttle parts visible. However, a TV screen in front of the stands did show a close up view of the launch pad and the shuttle. In front of the bleachers was a large countdown clock, ticking the seconds away. Watching the clock, the crowds, and listening to the NASA commentary, contributed to the increasing excitement.

Launch pad A with shuttle

Although there was a better view on the TV, it was more than awesome to be present when Discovery took off. We could see the first steam cloud, when they release huge amounts of water to cushion the sound, then the brilliant red and orange flair of the rocket ignition along with the audible rumble as the shuttle rose into the air. Initially, it seemed like slow motion, but the speed increased quickly as the con trail began to unravel behind the ship. You could feel the sound rattle in your chest as it climbed for about 3 minutes and the announcer called out the speed increases about every second, from 4,000 mph to 5, to 7, on to 17,000 miles per hour.

At about 5 minutes out we saw the external tanks fall away. You could see them fall for about two minutes, then the light disappeared. These are the reusable tanks, so we knew they released parachutes and fell into the Banana River to be retrieved later that night. Shortly afterward the light from the shuttle itself faded away and slowly everyone returned to the many waiting buses.

Linda's shot of the blast off

vapor/smoke trail from the Shuttle

As we traveled back to the Residence Inn, the trail continued to hang in the sky for as long as I could see in that direction. While on the bus, my grandson, Jacob called me and asked what I saw. As I told him about my view, he said he was watching a replay on TV and it was exactly the same as my description. I wish he could have been here in person. Maybe next time.

If you would like to see some Professional photos of the launch go to and look for the group labeled STS-119 Space Shuttle Discovery. It is on the bottom row. These are great close up pictures

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