Thursday, March 3, 2011

Feb 24th - Launch Day

So, I arrive bright and early at KSC at a few minutes after 7:00 am. There are already a fair number of people here and I have to go through security with all my paraphanalia. So, take everything out of the bags. Are you sure that is Gator Ade? Why do you have two cameras? Can I sniff your Doritos?

I stop to take a picture of a life size mock-up of the new Orion capsule that is supposed to replace the Shuttle - or at least it was until it was scuttled to pay for Obamacare. (Or Pelosi's jet - not sure which) Now the mock-up sits there as a wish.

So, I finally get to what is supposedly a prime viewing spot on the concrete pad facing the launch pad. Even at this hour, it is one of the few spots left. I get out my tripod, set it up and carefully aim my video camera in the direction of what I think is the launch area. Can't see the shuttle from here though because it is just beyond a low tree. line. When we were here in 1997 for Columbia, we could actually see the shuttle on the pad albiet at quite a distance. It is sweatshirt cool and a light breeze. Quite pleasant but you can tell it is going to be nice and bright and warm later on.

By about 10:30, it is toasty warm and I'm glad to have my water and Gator Ade. The crowd is getting bigger and every few minutes, someone comes over to me and asks if my camera is aimed exactly to where the shuttle will break the tree line. Because I'm in the front row and I have a tripod, they assume that I'm an expert. I'm tempted to pull out my compass (yes, I do really have one)and tell them that they should aim their camera at 40 degrees and they will get a perfect picture. But I avoid being a wise guy and I politely point to the signs that give a general orientation of where to aim.

The crowd is getting bigger and bigger. A fair number of folks are well prepared as I am with food, water and folding chairs. Many however, are just planted on the concrete roasting their buns. These are generally the folks with small children who cry, complain, run around , fight with each other and are covered with something sticky.

I'm sitting next to a guy from Georgia and his wife. He's a few years older than I and semi-retired. He went to Alaska two years ago so we spend some time swapping stories. He thinks I'm crazy sleeping in a Subaru parked in shale pits by the side of the road with a wet dog. Another guy joins the conversation and he used to play in a band in Homer Alaska and he would fly up to Deadhorse to entertain the oil workers at the BP Hilton. All good fun conversation for a bunch of fools roasting in the sun for about 10 hours. Eventually though the conversation turns to the fate of the Shuttle program. Everyone that I spoke to had the same sentiments. It's a shame that we now have to depend on the Russians and perhaps someday the chinese to get us into space. And it is a shame that we spend billions on "shovel ready" projects that add little value. From my very unscientific poll conducted here today, I'd say if we had an election here today, that there would be a new administration.

So, moving on, as we get closer and closer to launch time, there is a hold on the launch due to a glitch in the Range Safety Officer's computer. Apparently he cannot tell if all of the alligators, pelicans and sea gulls have been warned that there will be a loud noise and a big puff of smoke. So, they beat their gums over this dilemna - they broadcast it live at the viewing center and they finally said the heck with the seagulls, let's fly. There's 40 or 50 thousand people sitting out there who paid to watch this big firecracker, so let's light it off. Pelicans, sorry 'bout your luck.

So finally, off we go at 4:50 pm. It was impressive to be sure and there were cheers and a lot of pride in the crowd. While it was loud, it did not seem as furious as the Columbia launch in 1997. Perhaps because of the noise being partly muffled by the tree line. Or maybe the EPA made them put noise abatement technology on the thing. I think in 1997 we saw it from the NASA causeway which is now closed and the sound came straight across the water.

So anyway, I got about a minute of video and we could see the boosters separate and then - poof - it was gone. Little sucker sure is fast. Leaves contrails like mobody's business.

So now it is time to leave. During my 10 hours in the sun, I had managed to call Ranger Harry Hicks at the Donald McDonald Campground. The place is for real and the only clowns are the campers. But cell phone traffic is full bore here and most of the time, I got "call failed, all circuits are busy". So Harry told me that If I called him when I left the Cape that he would save me a spot. Also, I'm told that it may take as long as 3 hours to get out of the Space Center.

So, I pack my stuff and walk as fast as a sunburned fat man can walk to the car. I bypass the Chinese families with the Hello Kitty tote bags. I get to the car and try to hit two Key West Queens holding hands strolling in the traffic lane. Finally, I'm out onto the causeway doing almost 60 MPH - whoa baby, I'm gonna make it!

But wait - the drawbridge is up. Some rich guy in a 40 foot Bertram is trolling under the bridge. Traffic screeches to a halt - me too. Sube almost stalls. The ABS light comes on. WT(Heck)!!!???. OK, I try the simple solution for Electronic Stuff. Turn it off and re-start. Reboot. So, Turn car off. OOPS. Car won't turn on. Nothing. not even a slow grind. No lights, no flashers, no battery. Dead. Subaru mortuus est. Translation, the car is dead. So now I've got about 10,000 cars loaded with sunbaked launch watchers behind me and I'm blocking the left lane. I get out of the car and immediately I get about 15 people volunteering to push the car off of the raod and into the causeway. Needless to say, they pushed quite vigorously.

Fortunately, by this time, traffic is just creeping. So one good Samaritan asked if I needed help. Ohh, it was so hard not to come back with a wisecrack. But I thought that would earn me a big "So screw you too, pal" So, I was good. Yes, please and humble thank-you. A jump please. So, he has cables handy, and we hook them up. I ask him to give his car a little gas but traffic is moving a little now and he says "gotta go". So, I try to call Harry Hicks at the campground and my lifeline, Dorene in case I need AAA. All circuits are busy. I'm so happy. At least the beer in my cooler is still cold.

I have the hood up on the car so the sea gulls can take a crap on the engine. Seems fitting. So, a little more traffic passes and another Samaritan stops and asks the inevitable question. Yes, I replied, I need a jump. He asks if I have cables. Yes, of course But they are buried in the spare tire well. So what. So, off comes the bike, out comes the luggage, the cooler and all kinds of camping stuff. I actually think about popping a cold one, cooking some Ramen noodles and staying right here. At least it is not raining.

So, we put the cable on and this guy actually takes the time to rev his engine. Sube starts. So, I turn off the AC, radio and all accessories but lights. Another miracle, I get a call through to Ranger Hicks. He says not to worry, I've got a spot. Life looks better and better. Only 13 miles to I-95. Two hours later, I get to I-95. But I've not been wasting my time sitting in traffic. I've played with the GPS looking up Wal-Marts, Advance Auto, Firestone, anything that will sell a battery. I finally get to Melbourne and with 10,000 cars in front of me and 10,000 cars behind me, FLA-DOT has decided to block off two lanes to paint lines on the road. I cussed - yes I did. I need soap for my mouth I cussed so much. Don't these people know that Advance Auto is not open 24 hours?

Finally, I get the exit and there is a Auto Zone on my left. I pull in. Got a battery for a 2005 Subaru? Yep, brand new. Been here since 2006. Great, I'll take it. Up goes the hood, out comes the tool kit. simple hand tools for simple people in a dark parking lot at 8:45pm. Car starts just fine and off we go to Donald McDonald Campground. Only 1/2 hour to go. A convience store. Food & ice. I get a wonderful greasy cold Italian footlong for $4.00. Get to the campground by 10:00pm. the ranger comes by and tells me this is a "zero tolerance" campground. The campers next door tell me that that means hide your beer in a sippy cup. Finally, life is good. Oh by the way, my tools are in the parking lot of the Auto Zone in Melbourne. What a day!

Kennedy Space Center

The first night on the road was uneventful - thankfully. the big adventure of the day was at a McDonalds in South Carolina off of I-95. I had a coupon for a free fish sandwich if I bought one. Buy one, get one free concept. So I ordered a Fish Sandwich meal for $4.39 and said here is my coupon for the second fish sandwich. the free one.

So, the fellow at the register rang it up and it came out to $8.00 and some change. So, stupid me, I asked how he did that. He called the manager over and she took a whack at it. She futzed with the cash register for about 10 minutes and I finally suggested that she simply ring up the $4.39 meal and hand me another sandwich. That caused a major short circuit and after another 10 minutes of futzing, we finally got to $5.50. At that point, I took the deal and ate my free $1.00+ sandwich.

So, got to Kennedy Space Center about noon on Feb 23rd. I did not intend to take a tour. Instead, I simply wantd to know where I could best view the launch. They said I could buy a two day pass which would include a ticket to view the launch from the visitor center. But they were running out of passes to the visitor center, so make up my mind or be S.O.L. Easy, let's take the two day pass. Besides, this will be the last time I get to see a shuttle sitting on the launch pad.

So, off I go on the tour bus with 50 of my best Chinese buddies. They are taking pictures too so they can steal our technology and sell it back to us. Who knows, maybe in 10 years, you will be able to buy a space shuttle at Wal-Mart. And the instructions will be in Spanish and English.

So, I saw the VAB - Vehicle Assembly Building and then off to an observation tower where we could look at Pad 39A. The shuttle itself was obscured by the gantry and all of that mess but I could still see the nose of the big orange main fuel tank. They said it goes through 1,500 gallons of fuel in one second during liftoff.

Then on to the Saturn V and Apollo exhibits where they have a full scale Saturn V rocket on its side and one of the actual Apollo capsules. I had been there a number of years ago so I sort of did the O.J. Simpson dash (before he went to jail) through because I needed to be at St. Sebastian park by 5:00 pm to claim my camping spot. And oh by the way, to get a good viewing spot for the launch tomorrow, be back by 7:00 am.

So, I drove like a batoutahell to get to St. Sebastian Park about an hour south of the Cape. Made it at 4:55 pm. Got there and the ranger told me that I don't have a reservation. He told me that I must be at St. Sebastian Game Preserve - about 15 miles away. I can't even find that one on a map. So now it is well after 5:00 pm, campgrounds are full and most offices are closed and I don't have a place to stay. Hmmmm. I'm becoming a tad annoyed. Both with myself and life in general. I ask, are there any other campgrounds? Sure, try this one. Donald McDonald campground. OK. I'm thinking this has got to be some kind of joke. A takeoff on Ronald McDonald and you get to camp with a clown.

So, I decide to drive back up I-95 and get closer to Cape Kennedy and just get a cheap Motel 6 for the night. So I get to Cocoa Beach and pull off and get to a Motel 6. Fine. What's the rate? $149.00 plus tax. So what's the deal? I paid $52.00 with tax last night in Brunswick GA. Shuttle launch tomorrow buddy, do you want the room or not? We have three rooms left and there are people standing behind you in line. Is that the AAA rate? That's the only rate. By the way, it's a smoking room. OK, fine, I'll take it. Do I have to smoke? I get some reply in Hindi that sounds like a cobra coming out of a slurpee machine.

So, the room smells like old cigarette smoke with cheap air freshener sprayed liberally. Where's the wi-fi so I can do my blog? No Wi-fi. How about a light over the vanity so I can see to brush my teeth? Later I discover only basic cable. No Discovery Channel, No History Channel. Only NBC. No TV tonight In the morning, another surprise, no hot water. No coffee in the room either. Ahh, a great stay at the Punjab Hilton.

So, needless to say, I'm up early. I pack my backpack with a bottle of gator-ade, water, 2 apples and a bag of Doritos. Got my folding chair and my video camera and my tripod and I'm ready for the expedition of the day.

Next Chapter - Launch day -Or picnicing with 40,000 of your best friends - Or Where old car batteries go to die.