Monday 11/16/2009 Day 4: STS-129 Launch
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.
As always, larger pictures of our full trip to Florida are available from my Flickr photo gallery.