STS-134: First Launch Attempt, April 29th, 2011

Experiencing a space shuttle launch from the lawn in front of the countdown clock would be incredible. Fortunately, experiencing a launch scrub from that same vantage point was also fascinating. The actual launch is only one moment in a long process, and I was thrilled to get a brief look behind the scenes as events unfolded. Rusty covered the technical aspects of the launch, leaving me free to poke around and soak up the atmosphere.

by M. McDonell

I arrive at the hotel in Titusville midst of a rain storm. I'm shocked that the woman at the front desk gives me a key to Rusty's room without asking for my ID or a credit card. The dismal view from the room— a swampy pond, the freeway, and Waffle House— improves dramatically when a lightning storm begins. One bolt strikes so close all the lights in the hotel and businesses across the freeway go dark for several seconds. I yank the power cord from my computer. We almost never have lightning like this in San Francisco so it is exciting and a little scary to have a front row seat to this show.

Lightning

Rusty arrived Wednesday and is currently at Kennedy Space Center to see the retraction of the rotating support structure (the big thing that supports the shuttle before a launch). Lightning has delayed the procedure and he is trapped on the bus. I'm sorry to be missing this, as the viewing area for this event is as close as any (non-KSC people) can get to the shuttle.

I start launch day with a visit to the glamorous "Press Accreditation Building" so I can pick up my badge. Having visited Kennedy Space Center as a tourist last year, I was expecting something glitzy, like the Disney-esque visitor's center.

NASA press accreditation office

As you can see, it is nothing of the sort. I love how the women behind the counter deal with everyone with the same, DMV-style disinterested efficiency whether they are a high-profile reporter or a softball team coach.

"You work at NPR, huh? What's your middle name?"

My last-minute accreditation means there is no badge for me in the alphabetical file, and a call must be made. I eavesdrop on two sound engineers discussing problems with their interview room. The air conditioner is too loud and the din from the crowd outside can be heard. One thinks this ambient noise is fine, citing the fact that it makes it seem like they are really here. The other disagrees and descends into technical language that is incomprehensible to me.

Finally, my badge is approved, and I chat with the woman as she laminates it. She's been at Kennedy for 22 years. Many of the employees I talk to have worked for KSC for this long or longer, and this blows my mind. I'm part of a generation that, often unwillingly, changes jobs every few years. While I've often complained about this, the idea of working at the same place for decades is also unnerving.

Zero days until launch

It has been pouring rain while I've been in the building, but it lets up just as I'm considering running barefoot to the car. Back on the road, we show our badges and passports to a guard at a checkpoint, and continue on. The cloudy sky worries me, and Rusty reminds me that we also need to worry about the weather at the three emergency landing sites in Europe. The shuttle needs a place to land if a problem prevents it from reaching orbit, and the weather at all three sites is iffy. The more I learn about how complex of an operation this is, the more I'm amazed it ever launches!

We park in a field, grab our gear, show our badges to another guard, and head towards the News Center. I'm amazed at the number of news trucks in the adjacent lot. I've never seen so many in one place, and the satellite dishes that sprout from each of them give the impression of a vast, mechanical garden, all the flowers facing south towards an invisible sun. Their drip irrigation system of cables runs along the ground and in troughs.

news trucks

We hurry on to the Soma FM desk in the News Center. The room is nicer than the press accreditation building, livened up with hanging flags and some art and posters, but it still feels timelessly unfashionable and institutional. I get it; I don't want NASA spend its money on a fancy room for reporters, but who decided that everything should be gray?

Rusty in the press center

I forget my petty design complaints when the buzz in the room hits me. I am surrounded by representatives from nearly all the major news outlets. The desk in front of Soma FM's is reserved for Newsweek and I'm amazed that we have been allowed to play in here with the big kids.

A long counter runs along one wall (behind the TV screens in the photo) and representatives from the private sector companies involved with the shuttle and the International Space Station are available to answer questions. The KSC desk has sign-up sheets for astronaut interviews!

Rusty finishes his set up, and we head outside to find places for the still and digital cameras. I feel like I've stepped into an audio/visual swap meet. A line of EZ ups sits on a gravel road above the lawn; equipment and boxes and cables are everywhere, and crews are hard at work setting everything up. Reporters stand silent, holding microphones, as technicians adjust lights. Some news agencies, such as CBS and Reuters, have been given space in small buildings and mobile homes, and their roof decks presumably give them a better view of the shuttle. Those of us on the ground barely see it peeking over the trees.

Fox News guy

The famous countdown clock is in front of me and I have to get a closer look. It is much bigger than I imagined, very retro, and a little weather-beaten. I love the wacky incandescent bulbs, each one a slightly different brightness. The paint is peeling on the base, and a hose protrudes from the bottom, dripping water. I'm simultaneously happy and let down, as I guess is common when meeting an icon.

countdown clock

The big white Tweetup tent is to the right of the clock and I sneak a peek inside. (NASA invited 150 of its Twitter followers to a special two-day event.) Astronaut Leeland Melvin (I didn't know his name, but some quick googling helped me out) is addressing the happy tweeters. I didn't expect to see a real astronaut up close and personal like this. At best, I hoped to get a glimpse of the current shuttle crew from a distance, so I'm really stoked to be only 20 feet from this guy.

When he finishes speaking, I follow him and another astronaut as they head over to the countdown clock for an interview. I mill around for a while but nothing much happens, so I go to find Rusty. He has signed us up to see the astronauts emerge from quarantine (I never knew they had to stay in quarantine before a launch, but it makes sense) and get on the Astrovan.

astronaut

I am excited not only to see astronauts, which by now I'm realizing are everywhere today, but to see the Astrovan! What could be cooler than an Airstream trailer with astronauts inside??? We line up alongside the row of NASA school buses that will take us to wherever they are hiding the shuttle crew.

dog

A few minutes before we leave, a grandmotherly NASA employee asks us to leave our bags, and step to the other side of the buses. We do, a tad confused, and then the bomb sniffing dog comes out! He goes down the whole line, sniffing each and every bag. We pass the test, and get on the bus, heading to the best field trip ever.

Rusty is following many news feeds and informs me that President Obama is currently in Alabama surveying hurricane damage. Based on this info, we assume that he isn't going to make it to Cape Canaveral in time to view the launch.

We ride for longer than I expect and end up near some nondescript buildings. We are funneled into a fenced off space between two of them. I'm taken aback by the attitude of the professional and/or rabid hobbyist photographers. They push and shove to get the front. Some set up step ladders despite the fact that they have an unobstructed view and ruin things for all of us in the back. I don't want to fight, so I move to the rear and abandon any hopes of getting a photo that doesn't include the heads of the jerks.

As I'm waiting, David Pogue, a New York Times columnist, is being filmed right in front of me. He walks forward towards the camera, saying something like, everyone loves the space program, so why is it being canceled? (I don't remember exactly, and can't find the segment online). I wouldn't have recognized him, but he helpfully says his name over and over again.

David Pogue

NASA now lets employees from the adjacent building into the viewing area and a bit of confusion ensues. The same grandmotherly lady who told us to leave our bags on the ground by the buses is now telling the NASA staffers that they have to stand behind the press, and they are pissed. I totally sympathize. It doesn't seem fair that the shuttle medical crew (they have awesome jumpsuits) can't get a good view. A very large NASA employee, obviously not a security guy, half-heartedly tries to get the staff away from the front.

Two of the medical staff stand next to me, and I hear some exciting tales of taking helicopter rides with the crew. On my other side, a guy is telling a photographer that he is writing a biography of Dennis Hopper.

"Have you met him?" the photographer asks.

"No," replies the guy, "and he's dead."

"Dead! When did he die?"

At last there is commotion by the Astrovan. Non-astronauts come out of the building carrying bags. A helicopter hovers overhead. (Rusty snaps telephoto pictures that reveal people with very large guns sitting in the open doorway.) A grizzled photographer near me says not to worry, I'll know when the astronauts come out because everyone will scream. I regard the crowd around me skeptically. They don't seem like the type.

I'm wrong. There is a huge surge of energy and noise— all directed towards doors that are out of my field of view. In a moment, I see spots of orange. The moment really is ridiculously exciting. The astronauts smile and wave, completely at ease. I'm in awe of them. I can barely eat before a job interview and here they are facing the press, on their way to sit on top of a giant rocket and head into space. Wow.

sts-134 astronauts

Rusty is bigger and taller and got much better photos than I did!

sts-134 astronauts

After less than a minute, the astronauts get on the astrovan and drive away. I love the strange, tank-like vehicle that follows them.

Tank thing

We get on our bus and are heading back when Rusty leans over and tells me the launch has been scrubbed. He's been watching the news on his iphone. I'm more shocked than disappointed. No one else on the bus seems to know. I ready my camera and catch the astrovan returning.

When we get back, Rusty takes down the tripods and cameras that are on the lawn. I see Seth Green on the gravel road. He is wearing a Tweetup lanyard, and is way, way shorter than I expected him to be, and I had no idea I had expectations regarding his height.

The News Center is crazy busy when we enter. It appears that anyone who was out in one of those EZ ups is now inside waiting to hear an update from NASA. There are huge cameras everywhere, microphones with station logos, and reporters in search of a story. The man behind us is from Fox News Radio, and he is recording his show right there amidst all the chaos. I'm amazed he can concentrate, but he gives the same 20-second speech over and over until he gets it right.

reporters waiting for updates

I'm lucky. The desk adjacent to Soma FM's is empty, so I can work there. I strike up a conversation with the man next to me. He is from a University in France. Unfortunately I can't quite hear how he is involved in the shuttle mission thanks to the din and his accent, but when I pull up my pathetic photo of the Astrovan, he appears to be very familiar with the astronauts.

"He is very nice," pointing at a face on my screen. "That one is not."

I ask how he knows, and it turns out the astronauts were all in France. Why, I don't know, but they wanted to take a hike, so he and some others took them up a mountain in Chamonix. He brings up his photos and they are amazing. Snowy alps, dark figures tied together on mountain ridges. He tells me with satisfaction that some of the astronauts were too scared to do parts of the climbs.

A woman colleague yells over to him. "I need help. I cannot do the Twitter. It is broken!"

She angrily shoves her computer into his hands. I'm surprised at how many Facebook and Twitter accounts I see open all around me. I'm curious to know if people are reporting via these mediums, using them to get breaking news, or just fooling around.

The media people, with nothing to do until the NASA press conference at 4p.m., begin interviewing anyone they can get their hands on: roaming astronauts, NASA administrators, even each other. I'm in the background of so many shots I'm worried that my 15 minutes of fame is being used up, second by second, and all I will be is a fuzzy orange dot in the background.

Interviewing Luca Parmitano

I gather up my courage and say hello to Italian ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano who will fly on the International Space Station in 2013. I think he looks a little like a younger, cuter version of Jean Luc Picard from Star Trek.

We get the news that President Obama will still come to Kennedy Space Center even though the shuttle won't launch today. The reporters all perk up. We watch his plane land at Cape Canaveral on the TV screens in the press center. He and Michelle and the kids get out and get into a helicopter. I have the bright idea to go outside to see his helicopter fly by, but no one has any idea where he is going, so all there is to see is a bunch of us idiots standing around in the hot sun looking at the sky.

Back in the press center, I learn that Obama will tour the Launch Control Center, which is right across the street, so Rusty and I go to check that out. Indeed, something is going on over there. The number and variety of security people is astounding. Security guards are turning away cars that try to approach. There are snipers on the roof of that building, as well as on the huge Vehicle Assembly Building. Men in suits and sunglasses, looking like they stepped out of the Matrix, mill around, and there are men in camouflage with big guns.

snipers

One large helicopter lands behind the Vehicle Assembly Building. A bus and a couple of black SUVs pull around to an entrance of the Launch Control Center.

"Do you think the President was in one of those?" I wonder aloud.

A man near me scoffs. "The President wouldn't ride in that!"

Time passes, nothing much happens, and I'm starving. Rusty and I head over to the cafeteria to get something to eat.

I am excited to visit the employee's cafeteria. People eat here that build the space shuttle! Sadly, it is a big disappointment. Another drab, dismal room, institutional and dull. I don't want to keep harping on NASA's interior design but it is uninspired, and uninspiring. Most of the cafeteria is closed down as it is a strange time between lunch and dinner. Rusty is glad to hear he can still get a hamburger, but we both sigh when the woman behind the counter opens a warming tray and pulls a pre-cooked one off a stack.

On the way back to the News Center, we realize the President is arriving at the Launch Control Center right now. In the distance we see black cars, motorcycles, and a helicopter hovers overhead. The procession disappears behind the building.

Presidential Helicopters arrive

Great! Now we have a chance to see him as he leaves. We get our cameras and stake out a spot on the lawn, but we figure he'll probably be in there for at least an hour.

heading off to the lawn As I meander along the fence that keeps us from getting too close to the building, I pause to watch the snipers on the building roof. Thankfully, they are currently holding binoculars and not the deadly-looking silver rifles I know are on the roof next to them. From behind me I hear a harsh yell.

"Get out of my way! You! Get out of my way!"

I turn, confused, and see it is another insane photographer. He is at least 50 feet away from me, holding a camera with a huge lens. He is snarling and gesturing. I am between him and the door Obama will presumably exit from. Geeze. A little politeness would go a long way, dude. I'm tempted to stand there just because I can, but he is probably making a living doing this, and definitely has a few ex-wives to support.

Motorcycle Escorts Suddenly, things start to happen. We hear the woomf woomf woomf sound of big helicopters approaching. The motorcycle cops get on their bikes and start their engines. Men in suits emerge from the building. Headlights on the black cars flair to life. I realize my pathetic zoom lens isn't going to get any great pictures, so I resolve to hold it pointed at the door, but to watch what happens with my eyeballs. Crazy idea, huh?

Thanks to NASA TV, I know that Obama is wearing a light blue button down shirt and brown slacks. I'm fascinated to see that several dark-skinned men in identical outfits emerge from the building and get in and out of cars. One is clearly too dark to be Obama, but I don't think he chose his outfit by chance. I wonder why all this security is necessary at a federal facility. (Only later do I learn that he has already authorized the capture of Bin Laden, and I assume much of this is because of that.) It is a little hard to see in the photo below, but you can make out what I believe is the real Obama to the right of the other one, behind the car door.

stunt obama

Suddenly, the procession is on the move. The windows of the two presidential cars are too dark for me to see into, but Rusty gets a great shot with his big lens. I love the little hand waving on the right. It must be Sasha. What exciting lives his daughters live, eh? If you have a really great imagination you can see me reflected on the shiny car door. I *am* wearing an orange dress and I do see an orange spot, so maybe?

Real Obama

I have a crazy hope Obama might open the window and wave, but, duh, he doesn't. The procession drives away, but Rusty captures a great shot of the car behind Obama's. I presume these guys are driving with the door open to shoot down any attackers, but he gives us all a peace sign. So awesome!

peace

The procession vanishes, the helicopters depart, and we remember what we are really here for. I figure I've missed the press conference about the launch scrub, but it was delayed and I squeeze into the packed room and get a seat on the floor in front. A gangly, pretty-boy Fox affiliate reporter sits next to me, and his phone rings repeatedly before the idiot turns off the ringer.

NASA press conference

Michael P. Moses, Preflight Mission Management Team Chair, leads the conference. I am amazed at how professional and competent and forthright the four men in front of me are. They refer to notes only rarely, and only use vague language when asked vague and stupid questions. I'm enthralled by the two men with microphones on long poles that handle the question and answer period. They dance all over the room, poking the poles through the crowd and no one loses an eye.

After the news conference the media people quickly disperse, and the News Center empties. I watch the press conference again on NASA TV. I appear in two of the shots when people near me ask questions. More of my 15 minutes of fame being wasted! By this time I'm feeling quite the expert on the Load Control Assembly, the faulty part that caused the launch scrub. Rusty and I work for a while longer, then tiredly pack up and head to the car. It is one of the last ones in the lot.

Though the shuttle didn't launch, I've had a full and amazing day and honestly, if the shuttle had launched today, I would have been completely overwhelmed. Rusty is heading back for the next launch attempt and I hope everything goes as planned and I can't wait to see his pictures and video!

leaving Kenneday Space Center

Story and Photography by M. McDonell for SomaFM. Additional Photograph by Rusty Hodge.
©2011 SomaFM.com LLC. All Rights Reserved.