With all of the news coverage of the Space Shuttle Discovery being delivered to the Smithsonian recently, I was reminded on how these magnificent machines, symbols if you will, inspire and ignite the imagination in all of us:
Every once in a while we get lucky. For me November 16, 2009 was one of those days. I had the honor of being asked to view the launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis from the coveted viewing area adjacent to the Saturn V Center located just across from the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) and up the road from the mammoth Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). The location is off-limits to the press and general public during a launch and is where many Distinguished Visitors and family members of the astronauts can view the launch without being in the public eye (a necessity given the nature of human space flight and as a result of the Challenger and Columbia disasters). Needless to say, it was quite an honor and something I could not pass up.
I guess I should backtrack a little. For those of you who do not know, the Air Force works hand-in-hand with NASA and other civil, commercial and national organizations in all things related to space…and I just happen to work for the Air Force. The area surrounding Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is part of the Eastern Range; an area that is monitored and controlled by the Air Force to ensure public safety while granting assured access to space. There are two main forces to every launch, a system of checks and balances if you will, a launch agency (NASA, Space-X, NRO, etc.) and the Range component. The launch agency, and their mission partners, are responsible for the proper processing of the launch pad, booster, payload and for the flight of the system. The Range is responsible for the area in which the flight will travel through, above and into; as well as provide communications, telemetry, radar and optical data to the launch agency, and ultimately to provide public safety (both before and during the launch) and to terminate the mission if something should go awry.
At the time I was assigned to the 1st Range Operations Squadron (1ROPS) as a Range Operations Commander (ROC), a job described to many as the on-console “quarterback of the range team” and whose primary responsibility is to maintain overall situational awareness of all of the range systems, ensure public safety requirements are met and to make the “Go/No-Go” call depending on the status. It’s certainly not a job for the faint of heart or for those with weak convictions as a “No-Go” call could result in not only a missed launch opportunity, but could cost the launch agency millions of dollars. I would be remiss if I didn’t take the time and give the real credit where it is due; the men and women that make up the entire team (military, government civilians and contractors) are world-class folks doing a very demanding job behind the scenes. Essentially for every launch there are a million (at a minimum) things that need to be accomplished before the countdown begins…these men and women work tremendously long hours, days, months and even years to ensure all of those things are accomplished correctly and in a timely and professional manner. My hat goes off to them and I’m tremendously honored to have been a part of their efforts.
Every time there is a Space Shuttle launch, all activity within the confines of Cape Canaveral, Kennedy Space Center and surrounding communities comes to a screeching halt. For about five hours during a Space Shuttle launch, Brevard County essentially becomes the worlds largest parking lot as the locals, and tourists from all over the globe, arrive to catch a glimpse of this amazing feat. In fact, you get the feeling that the whole state holds it’s breath from when the countdown commences until the Shuttle, along with it’s precious human cargo, are safely in orbit.
On this particular day I found myself in-between mission assignments and not having to perform some mundane additional duties for the launch (such as leading a tour of the Operations Center, or escorting DVs). I don’t remember the exact circumstances that led up to me obtaining a pass to get on the DV bus, but I do remember being ecstatic about watching the launch from the Saturn V Center as it’s about as close as non-mission personnel can get to the launch without violating the established safety zone. We arrived around two hours before T-0, which left me plenty of time to check out possible vantage points for taking images and for a self-guided tour the Saturn Center (highly recommended if you get the opportunity to go). Upon entering the Saturn Center, you’re confronted with the business end of a Saturn V rocket…quite the sight, not to mention very intimidating! As you walk around the behemoth (and believe me, it is most certainly a behemoth) there are various displays (actual pieces) of equipment, capsules, suits and of course what I consider a black-eye of any attraction, the gift shop where the concession makes a small fortune selling cheap memorabilia (a blog post for another day maybe?). Anyway, to be that close to a real Saturn V and to see it in all its glory is something very special. It was, and still is, considered the most powerful rocket ever created…after seeing it up close and personal, I believe that statement.
At about T-10 minutes I made my way to an area I had scouted out earlier that was between a couple of trees along the river bank. The launch was set for 2:28 p.m. and the sky was partly-cloudy…conditions I wasn’t too crazy about photographically, but oh well, it’s a Space Shuttle launch and you take what you can get! I attached a 2x tele-extender to a 80-200 f/2.8 lens and D200 to give me as much reach as possible, however, in doing so I inadvertently lost the ability to use the camera’s capable auto-focus feature so I had to rely on my manual focus techniques (which were fairly limited at the time). Since I had a few minutes to burn, I decided to not waste any and practice my manual focusing technique by attempting to track some of the abundant waterfowl that reside in the area (KSC is located on the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge). This proved to be just the thing I needed as the plane of focus for that lens with the tele extender is incredibly narrow and had I not practiced beforehand, could’ve been disastrous during the actual launch (not only for the images, but my pride as well).
Before I knew it, the voice over the PA system boomed “T-minus 10…9…8…” and the butterflies quickly grew (as they do for every launch…whether I’m on-console working the mission or just being an admirer on the ground). A very quick double-check of my settings and I was good to go. “…5…4…3…” the anticipation building, the crowd growing ever silent, the hopes, wishes, dreams and prayers of thousands, millions possibly, building into an unknown, yet palpable force directed into one foci as the count closed in on zero. Just as the clock reached zero the crowd erupted in cheers and applause as the area surrounding the launch gantry bellowed with intense smoke and steam; slowly the Space Shuttle defied earth’s gravity one more time and began it’s trek to the heavens.
I had the camera planted to my eye and was so amazed at what I witnessed in the viewfinder, it took what seemed like an eternity before my brain engaged and told my finger to start pressing the shutter button. Slowly as the orbiter rose to the heavens I began my dance with the camera to maintain proper focus all the while trying to force myself to focus on composition and attempt to not bull’s-eye the shot. Just seeing a launch is impressive, however, being close enough to one to hear it adds another dimension to the experience. The launch pad was over three miles from where we were standing and it took a few seconds for the sound to travel the distance, and once it arrived…it arrived! Oh boy did it ever arrive…those Solid Rocket Boosters providing over a million pounds of thrust provide one amazing audible experience, along with a gentle pounding of the chest. I managed to click off a few images while the orbiter accelerated rapidly, only to become a mere speck in the heavens within a matter of seconds, leaving behind a trail of smoke from the solid rocket boosters.
And just like that, we were summoned back onto the bus to head back to Patrick Air Force Base. As we drove back to the base I took stock of my surroundings and those on the bus with me…the noise was deafening as people talked about the launch and what they felt, thought, saw, imagined, etc. It was very apparent that viewing the launch kindled a spark or ignited a flame inside of each of them; the spirit within the bus was jubilant and at that moment, you felt as if there is nothing within our imaginations we couldn’t accomplish…
Until next time…