Tuesday 11/17/2009 Day 5: Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge
After visiting the awesome Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum in Titusville, we headed up US-1 towards the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is closed 3 days before a shuttle launch to prevent people from hiding out to see the launch from up close. The refuge borders NASA Kennedy Space Center, and we were sure to drive down to the beach to get close to the pads, although we had already seen the launch the day before. The majority of the pictures from our trip to Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge are available in much larger sizes in my Flickr photo gallery.
After briefly stopping at the visitor center for a map and directions we headed out to take a few wildlife drives, and race out to the manatee viewing platform. Unfortunately there were no manatees at the viewing area, so we returned down the road and took the Blackpoint Wildlife drive. It was an awesome drive and we saw tons of birds and wildlife.
On the way to the wildlife drive we saw many vultures, some Great Egret’s and some Snowy Egrets.
Once we started on the drive we saw several alligators, and some more birds, as well as an Osprey on one of the Bald Eagle platforms.
We toured the wetland area and saw lots of birds including lousiana herons.
We saw a Bald Eagle land on a far away platform. On the way out we shooed a snake off the road so it wouldn’t get run over.
After doing the wildlife drive, we headed down towards the seashore on a winding road through the marshes. There we got some super close up views of a great blue heron.
Then after rounding a corner we had to stop the car after another alligator was blocking the road. He was huge! There was no way around, so form a safe distance we got out of the car to see him and take some photos before he slid back into the water. A definite highlight of the whole trip.
We then made it down to the seashore where we could see the launch pads at sunset and the beach. It was a great end to the day and to the whole trip.
Monday was the big day for the shuttle launch. Sunday was a picture perfect day, cloudless and 80 degrees. We went to bed with a 90% chance of favorable weather for the launch Monday. We stocked up on sunscreen, and even decided to bring a couple towels to place over the back of our necks, as it was going to be really hot, and we were going to be sitting out in the open on the narrow causeway for hours waiting for the launch. STS-129 had a scheduled launch window of 2:28pm, but we needed to be at the space center at 7:00am.
We got tickets in late October to view the shuttle launch from the NASA Causeway within the NASA property. Only a few thousand tickets are available and they sell out in about 2-3 minutes. We would be viewing the launch from a very narrow strip of land about 6 miles from the launch pad. This picture shows the VIP, Press, and Causeway viewing areas. We are at the star (Jeff’s preferred viewing area).
Our launch parking pass said we needed to arrive at the Kennedy Space Center at 7:00am. Unsure of the traffic we would experience on launch day, we got up at 5:15a, at a quick breakfast and got on the road a little before 6am. We got some gas, and made it to the visitor center by 6:30am. There was very little traffic, but hey, you can never get there to early, only too late.
Since we got up before dawn, as the sun came up we noticed a low cloud layer. The current launch weather prediction was for low clouds that they hoped would burn off, giving only a 70 percent chance of favorable launch weather. What happened to the sun?!?! By 7am, it was really cloudy and cool, in the mid 50’s. We were dressed for sunny 80 degrees, and just had white t-shirts and shorts. It was wind,chilly, and seemed like no way the clouds would burn off.
We decided to take one of the normal tours NASA was running, as buses to the causeway didn’t board until 11:30am. The launch day bus tours are very abbreviated, and only take you to the Saturn V building or the International Space Station Center. Fortunately we hadn’t viewed the ISS Center Friday, so we took a bus there. On the way we got to see a pair of bald eagles that live on the Kennedy Space Center grounds. I took a few shots through the bus windows. You can see it is a cloudy morning. The eagle photos were taken at 8:40am.
I saw this water tower on the tour too, nice to see NASA has some creative people working for them.
The ISS Center was actually pretty neat, with full sized mock-ups of the International Space Station modules. There were also some models and info on Soyuz and Skylab, the first Russian and American space stations. We were able to view some of the ISS Modules from an observation platform and a guide answered all our questions. The modules we saw were in a semi-clean room. Not clean enough to require everyone be in bunny suits, but definitely a filtered cleaned area. The modules were what the guide referred to as “Suitcases” made by the Italian Space Agency. These suitcases were used to ferry up supplies, and bring back Space Station waste. Dad and I decided they were actually more like garbage bins. 😉
The black containers in this photo fit into the rounded “suitcases”.
Our guide told us that this module had been into space before, and the blue tape was used to mark repair micro meteor damage.
After viewing the ISS Center we went back to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor area and killed some time before getting in line for the bus to the causeway. The weather actually cleared a little, and the sun even briefly came out. But then low clouds returned, and by the time we got on our bus to the causeway it looked grim again. We were given coupons that were “limited” to purchase an additional launch viewing pass, as once you ride the bus to the causeway, your pass is used, and you need to spend another $20 to go again the next day.
NASA has limited buses to take people to the causeway, and the buses must remain there in case of a launch emergency and the need arises to bus us civilians back to the visitor center. We needed to remember our bus number (ours was 23, like Michael Jordan). We made it out to the causeway relatively quickly and settled into a viewing area in the second row of people. Dad did a great job and scored us some plastic chairs to sit in. That made the day much more bearable. This first shot of the shuttle shows what the day started as, cool and cloudy. Next you can see the causeway crowd before launch. I took an infrared image that shows how far away the shuttle is without a 200mm zoom lens.
We had to wait around 2 and a half hours for the shuttle to launch, and as we waited, the skies slowly cleared. We saw lots of birds, and fish were jumping from the water like crazy. There were dolphins swimming in front of us, and a C130 refueled two blackhawk helicopters as we waited. The clouds slowly cleared, and with around 9 minutes until launch the NASA broadcast stated that the weather was “perfect” so we knew we were a go.
The following are a few pictures of the launch I took. I used a Canon 40D, and a 70-200mm F2.8 lens without tripod. The launch pad was about 6 miles away and I am really impressed with the results. Click each image for a larger photo.
The launch was spectacular, but seemed over in minutes. I took a few infrared photos, and you can really see the shadow of the exhaust plume as the sun shines down onto the low cloud bank.
After the launch we hung around and took a couple more shots of us at the viewing area, exchanged some high-fives, and got back on the bus to the visitor center. A pair of F-15 Eagle jets flew over. We actually made it back to the hotel by around 5pm, had some dinner, watched some football and went to bed. It was a really great day, and we were so lucky to see the launch on our first try.
Friday 11/13/2009 Day 1: Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center
On the first day of our Florida trip to see the NASA STS-129 Shuttle Atlantis Launch, we decided to tour the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center to see the exhibits and take the Up-Close Shuttle Bus Tour of the complex. We knew we were going to be back on Monday the 16th for the shuttle launch, but wanted to take a day on site before the launch day so we could take our time and see everything we wanted to without feeling rushed on launch day. Plus, some of the tours and exhibits might be closed on launch day, and Dad made the great move of getting us Up-Close tour bus tickets for Friday, which promised to get us closer to the shuttle launch (it did not disappoint).
We arrived at the Visitor Center Friday morning and proceeded to walk through the rocket garden. The rocket garden has a collection of the early rockets the United States used to get astronauts and payloads into space. There is a Mercury Redstone, like the one Alan Shepard used to be the first American in Space, and a Saturn rocket, similar to the humongous Saturn V, as well as an assortment of capsules and many informative plaques and descriptions. Dad and I even sat in some of the replicas. It was pretty neat, and tough to get all the rockets into the camera frames.
After viewing the Rocket Garden, we went to the Astronaut Memorial, and saw a brief presentation on NASA today, which showed some live remote camera views of the prep work that was being completed for the upcoming shuttle launch. It was pretty informative, and neat to see. Then we went and saw the 3D IMAX movie about the International Space Station, and it was on to the main event, the Up-Close Bus Tour.
The Up-Close tour was really great and well worth the extra $20 it costs. We got to ride out to the NASA Causeway where we would be watching the STS-129 launch from on Monday. We could also see the Atlas V rocket which was supposed to be launching Intelsat 14 early Saturday morning, and the Delta IV rocket in its assembly building which was to launch later in the next week, but got delayed. We could tell that we were going to have some prime viewing spots for the launch. The shuttle was on Pad 39A, although most of it was obscured because the control structure was in place. NASA Launch Pad 39A, where Atlantis would launch from is 6 miles away from the causeway. Pad 39B, converted for the Ares Rocket Program is slightly farther away. The Delta IV and Atlas V are US Air Force Launch Sites, and not accessible or viewable to the public. Views from the causeway.
After viewing the launch sites and rockets from the causeway, we got back on the bus and headed towards the large Vehicle Assembly Building. We made a right and drove past the standard tour viewing platform (3 miles away) and headed towards a closer tour viewing area. We drove past the 39B launch pad and past a couple NASA crawlers. Then we made it to a viewing area midway between pads 39A and 39B. It was really close. We stayed there a while and viewed both pads. Shuttle Atlantis was on 39A. We also saw a tortoise burying eggs, and a NASA T-38 Jet fighter flew over. It was very close, very cool, and well worth the trip.
While at the viewing platform I was able to use my super zoom lense to get an image of one of the USGS Benchmarks in the excluded camera pad area. Its designation is “KAREN”.
After viewing the shuttle and launch pads, we went to the huge Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). The VAB is the largest building in the world by volume. It is over 500 feet high, and each star on the giant American flag is 6 feet in diameter. Each stripe is 9 feet in diameter. The VAB was built to assemble the huge Saturn V rocket. Today’s shuttle is half that size. When we visited, vultures were using the heat waves off the building to soar. More info on the VAB is available on Wikipedia.
We did a drive by of the really loooonng NASA landing strip after our stop at the VAB. It was not very exciting, just a huge runway.
After the runway drive-by we ended our bus tour at the Saturn V building. This rocket is huge! To big for my zoom lens, so I’ll have to wait for some pictures from Dad to post here. It was neat to see the rocket, touch a moon rock, and get a bit to eat. The Saturn V building is near the bleachers where the extended family of the astronauts get to view the launch. More info on the giant Saturn V rocket is available on Wikipedia.
After the bus tour, we returned to the visitor center and rode the NASA Launch Experience, which was amusing, and toured the shuttle bay in their full size shuttle on sight. Then it was back to the hotel. The Intelsat 14 satellite was due to blast off on the Atlas V rocket we saw earlier at 12:48am that night. So we got some rest and went out to the beach at 12:30am to watch the launch. Unfortunately unknown to us, the launch was scrubbed at 12:35am and we ended up staying out on the beach until 2:15am before giving up on it that morning. Doh!
As always, larger pictures of our full trip to Florida are available from my Flickr photo gallery. Day 2 includes our trip to Daytona Speedway.