Wednesday, November 7, 2007

STS-120: My experience seeing a Space Shuttle Launch.

Two months ago, before the space shuttle liftoff, I was visiting some pictures in flickr. There, I saw the Asawa's pictures and I asked myself: What about if I try to take similar pictures? I had all the motivations to do it. I live close to Cape Canaveral, I have studied astrophysics and my uncles took me out to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSC-VC) as soon as I got to the States. Being honest, I didn't to expect ever, see a space launch with my eyes. I grew up in a place where that dream was as far as the cosmos. That fact didn't allow me to change my priorities and the visit to that flickr site generated a cascade of events that made me live one of the best experiences I have ever had.

After I saw those pictures, I started searching for the next launch - October 23, 2007, 11:38am. Then, I met the crew, the mission goals and following the link dynamic, I found one page with the following text:

Tickets orders cannot be placed via email or by leaving a voicemail. You must order speaking with an agent (321-449-4400)

I tried to keep my trip online but it didn't work. I felt fear. Anytime a website stops my clicks, it invokes a lot of thoughts. What if my job doesn't allow me to make the trip? What if my family needs me? What can I do if they postpone the launch? Anyway, I made the call. I paid 50 dollars for my ticket. Would be better if I started to take it seriously.

First, I requested two PTO's. The Tuesday, October 23 and Wednesday, October 24. The idea was to try to be there one more day in case the space shuttle is not launched. Those PTO's were accepted just with a nice comment - these are the most weird PTO's that I ever seen ;-)
I was thinking drive late on Monday. It takes from Miami around 3 hours and 30 minutes.

At that moment I started searching for everything useful in the internet. At this point I found the Rainer Gerhards blog. It became on my best allies during those days because he was doing the research and publishing the details about the launch daily. I have to recognize that nothing is worst in the Internet than look for something that you don't know. The NASA website was not clear and from the first day I found the information disorganized. Besides, Rainer came to see another launch but it was postponed more than a week. He couldn't see it but he learned what to expect, so I didn't hesitate to follow his steps. At the beginning it was curious. I didn't see any comment. I asked to my self: Hey, what about if nobody is reading the blog? It is a great idea that require a lot of work. I need to help him so I started commenting the blog.

During that time he started to blog about the hotel vacancies and I remembered that after I bought my ticket, I left that task for the future. If I can't go for any reason I'll just lose my ticket - that was my first thought. But the situation to find a hotel was bad at that moment already. I had to book the Hotel as soon as possible. It was like a month before the launch; around September. I chose a hotel around Cocoa Beach because I was there before and it could give me some good surfing shots after the launch. Besides, all the hotels around the KSC-VC were sold out at that time.

I spent the previous month reading everything about the launch. To improve my success, I bought a better tripod, a monopod and a vest. That vest was a social hit because many people mistook me for a journalist. I really enjoyed that confusion. I also bought a polarizer for my 500 mm lens. As you see, I was suddenly over my $50 budget. During that time, I was considering the idea to collect pictures from different perspectives on a flickr group. It could be nice. I started creating the group, but at that moment I didn't have anything to create it with. not even a picture related to a launch. I started to consider my first trip to the Kennedy Space Center.

Fifteen days before the launch, my wife and me went to the KSC-VC. I had two goals: to take a picture of the shuttle ready and learn about Titusville. I was suspecting that my tickets could be to take photos from the KSC-VC and not from the NASA Causeway. When I did the call, I didn't know anything about locations. If that was the case, I would have liked to be prepared to take pictures in Titusville. I didn't have anything against the KSC-VC but I learned during those days that it doesn't have a view to the platform. I would have had to see the space shuttle just after it cross the tree line. Definitely, I didn't like that option.

We stayed at the Clarion hotel . It is the closest hotel to the KSC-VC. It is about 8 miles away. It has a good parking lot and I believe it has a good view to the pad. This place is not reported as the best location to take pictures but at that moment it looked great for me. As soon as we got to the KSC-VC, we found out that the best tour was the NASA-Up Close, but it was sold out that Saturday. So, we bought the regular tickets for that Saturday and the NASA-Up Close for the next day, on Monday at 10:00 am.

On Saturday we went to the observation gantry at the 39 complex. That was the first time we saw the crawler and I started taking some pictures. We did everything without pressure, sometimes we didn't even take pictures. Anyway the best tour would happen the next day. Big mistake!

The Sunday as soon as we got the bus, we had a big storm over us. We couldn't see anything, just the TV. We couldn't stop either to take any picture. I could feel the frustration between all the tourists on that bus. As soon as the tour over - two and half hours later - I went to the customer service office to ask about the possibility to take it again. At that moment the weather couldn't be better. They were absolutely nice and they gave us the only tickets available. They had the departure time scheduled in the next 10 minutes. So, we ran again to get the bus without any food or water. I can't believe we spent 5 hours on that bus expecting for a big moment that never happened. Even more, I don't know how my wife did it again without complaints. She is great!

At the end of that day, we were exhausted. We couldn't go to Titusville. We ate something around there and we returned to Miami.

The weekend before the launch I saw the opportunity to request another PTO. That means I had free Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. I bought another NASA-Up Close ticket on Internet. The first one in the morning.

Finding a hotel for that night was a nightmare. Two days before the launch, I received one of those emails that I hate so much, an offer for another night in the same hotel for a reasonable price. I was lucky!

On Sunday 21, I started my trip again to Cape Canaveral. I left Miami at 5pm and I got to the hotel at 9pm. The room was like what I was expecting. It had a balcony and a view to the Cocoa Beach Pier. At that moment I thought it could be useful. Except for two or three pictures I took
the next morning, I didn't step there again.

I got early to my tour the day before the launch. This time, I couldn't see the shuttle, Again! It was still covered, and I saw it like the last time. I saw the booster rockets and the external tank. I know it sounds frustrating, but I knew it could happen. So, I tried a different kind of pictures, I took pictures to the people in the tour and it was absolutely great. I was so close to getting everybody together and taking a group picture but I didn't ask. It would have been a great picture! At least for me.

I also focus too on take pictures from NASA-Causeway, VIP and other locations ready to see the launch.

My plan after that was to eat on the Saturn building and to go to Titusville, find a nice location and return to the hotel early but the life gave me another surprise.

First, I don't know how I ended up at an Astronaut's speech. During my lunch I was speaking with somebody who was sharing the same table with me. Later we walk a little bit and suddenly I was in the middle of that speech. It was absolutely unexpected. I need to say this: That speech changed my perception about those events. The astronauts have been lived experiences that are hard for us to imagine. At that moment I was felling grateful to Frank L. Culbertson Jr.- the astronaut, for a lot of things. But, I wasn't invited so I kept my mouth closed. The next time I will get in one of those dinners with an astronaut.

The second surprise was that I met Rainer Gerhards. Do you remember the blog that I was reading daily? He posted a picture of himself getting some feedback and there he was, in front of me. We spoke about all this experience. That was absolutely great.

My last thoughts meanwhile I was leaving the KSC-VC were about the wishes to be there during the launch. I met wonderful people during the whole day, on the bus, at the lunch time, during the astronaut's speech, on the line waiting for the buses, everywhere. It is nice speak with people with the same affinities. Anyway, soon I said to myself: I can't loose my initial idea. I came here to take the launch pictures.

At 5pm, I went to Titusville. I found the Veterans Memorial, wich was the best place to take pictures but the most visited too. I took a couple of pictures to have an idea and then I returned to my hotel. What a day! That night I couldn't sleep. I was uploading my pictures in flickr and preparing everything for the next day.

The next morning I went out like 6am and I got to the same park. I set up all my equipment and I don't know how to explain it but everything happened fast. I remembered that I tuned my radio on 90.7 MHz and listening, I heard the countdown. The story at this point was that I had everything except a watch. I used to see the time on my mobile. I didn't realize that somebody could call me exactly at the launch time. Well, it happened! You can imagine the situation. My neighborhood in the park warning me and I started taking the pictures using the remote controls for my cameras. I saw it with my eyes. It is hard to describe, you need to live it.
Two minutes later, the shuttle gone and we had the steam cloud created by the launch. Twenty minutes later that place was like the day before the launch, empty.

It's hard to explain with details everything that happened during those three days. I am still having wishes to write about other things that happened after the launch. Sharing opinions, experiences with many launch observers in the Cocoa Beach Pier. But this story would be hard to read. I want to finish it with my uncle's words as soon as I tell him all this: How often you get that amount of experiences in three days?

Now, some tips:

1. The best location to take pictures is in NASA-Causeway but I didn't find the way to buy them.

2. The second place is Titusville. Near to the Veterans Memorial Park.

3. Be there early, could be hard find a parking slot.

4. I set up my camera Nikon D80 manually. I took my pictures with aperture f/6.3, exposure 1/320 and ISO-400.
I used my lens Tamrom 200-500mm and a 2X multiplier. It means 1000mm.

5. I heard the countdown on the radio station 90.7 MHz.

6. I didn't remove my headset during the launch and now I'm complaining because I feel that I missed an important experience. Yes, I didn't hear anything. Maybe, I am deaf. ;-)

7. The KSC-VC could be a great place if you go with kids. The human experience there is absolutely great.

8. Speak, ask help to anybody around you. Everybody has something useful to say. I met people with 6 launches on their resume. They know what to expect. The people who come for first time usually are well informed.

9. Bring a watch.

Here some pictures take by me during this launch:

Shuttle Launch Discovery, Oct 2007

Shuttle Launch Discovery, Oct 2007

Dragon's lair

STS-120 Liftoff

My other pictures here:


Here there are a couple of useful links:

1. It is the STS-120 group in flickr. There you will see the launch from different locations. Most of them are located in the map.

2. It is the Rainer 's blog. Here you can get useful tips.

3. This is my website in flickr. I have there some pictures that I took during this adventure.

4. Veterans Memorial of Titusville Park

4. The photographer Chris Corder explains how he sets up his remote camera to take unbelievable photos. Don't miss this site.

5. Asawa's pictures.


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