By Sagar Pathak
With half open eyes, and in a semi-awake state of mind, I spotted the now familiar, 52-story Vertical Assembly building at the Kennedy Space Center. It was three a.m. eastern time, and I had just flown in the day before. My body was wondering why I was just waking up when normally I would be falling asleep at this time. It was confused and for a fleeting second so was I. But then I saw the innocuous sign on the side of the road. “Days till Count Down: 0.” And a small smile crept across my face. This was finally the day I would get to witness history and create some of my very own.
Seventeen days prior, a small, but important group of components in the Aft Load Control Assembly No. 2 (ALCA-2) caused the cancellation of the STS-134 mission launch four hours prior to launch, disappointing not only me, but hundreds of thousands of spectators and especially six eager astronauts strapped into the worlds largest bottle rocket. But as I heard someone at NASA say, “we may not do it fast, but we do it safely.” Knowing that a faulty ALCA would put the six astronauts in possible danger should have been an easy decision to ward off the disappointment of traveling half way across the country and spending hundreds of dollars on airfare, rental car, and hotel nights. But along with those hundreds of thousands of others, I knew that their safety was more important then witnessing one of man’s greatest accomplishments…a space shuttle launch. So I put my disappointment aside and re-booked my tickets to come back again for the next launch attempt.
Having only seen a launch on TV, I was not sure what to expect. Nor appreciate the full complexity involved to prepare six organisms made up of 60 percent water and fully dependant on oxygen into a vessel strapped to a glider that sits on 2.5 million gallon of highly combustible fuel, making it the worlds largest roman candle.
In the days leading up to each launch attempt, I was immersed in all things NASA. Me and 800 other journalists from around the world gathered into one building and absorbed facts about the shuttle, it’s multi-billion dollar Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer payload, the intricacies of launch windows, numerous checks and milestones needed to proceed with a safe and successful launch, and we all had a sideline seat.
We had sign up sheets to interview the astronauts, press releases handed out several times a day, and photo opportunities to view the major phases of the launch process. The latter of which interested me the most. And since I was out there twice, I got to know those processes very well. The four major photo opportunities were the rotating service structure (RSS) rollback, the astronaut walk out, and the launch itself.
The first week that I was there, I was like a fish out of water. It seemed like controlled chaos. I knew where to pick up my press credentials, and then was able to find the Press Center on my own. But after that, it was a whirr of papers and people. Luckily I had a friend to help me navigate through the uncharted waters. Ben Wang, an accomplished photographer and blogger (benairblog.blogspot.com) from the Bay Area had arrived a few days prior and was able to show me the ropes. He guided me through the maze of contractors and everyone who had a part on the space shuttle or space station or was apart of the payload going up. My stack of brochures was getting taller and taller. But it was information that just barely told the story of the complexity of launching these six men into the darkness of space.
The first major shoot was the RSS rollback. This was set for 7:30 p.m., 24 hours before the scheduled launch. Since we would be less then a quarter mile away from the space shuttle on the launch pad, security was in full effect. Bomb sniffing dogs checked the equipment of the 100 photographers who would be transported to the site via official NASA buses. We arrived a couple hours before to get screened, but alas, so did the volatile Florida weather. Quickly a Phase Two lightning strike warning was issued and we were told to clear any open space and get indoors immediately. Initial estimates were that the lightning storm would pass within the hour. But that stretched to six hours. And so we sat in the bus watching the lightning strike all around us, illuminating the dark skies. But after midnight, the remaining few were taken out to see Endeavor unveiled. And what a striking sight it was. A beautiful white shuttle against a dark black sky bathed in xenon lights. And after just 30 minutes, we were taken back on the bus and sent off to our respective hotels.
The next day would start less then six hours after we left. A short sleep, quick shower, and a stop at the 24-hour donut shop and I was back on my way to Kennedy for the 6 a.m. line up and search for the 11 a.m. astronaut walk out. We all jockeyed for position. This would be the final time any of the astronauts would see people not directly associated with the launch. They walked out and were greeted like rock stars. Cheers, clapping, and a barrage of flashes from the international media. They stopped for less then a minute in front of their 1949 AstroVan for a quick wave and then their fully armed escort, including a helicopter escort, was on its 20 minute drive to Launch Pad 39B. It would be less then 10 minutes later that they would get the news that the mission had been scrubbed. Within five hours, the crew was on board their aircraft and flying back to Houston. We did the same not knowing when the next launch date would be scheduled.
Fast forward two weeks and numerous potential launch dates, and it was time to fly back to Kennedy. You know you’ve been here before when you don’t need a map to navigate to the routine spots. But with that familiarity came the confidence to get the shots I wanted. Unfortunately with two weeks passing, the narrow launch window to send the Orbiter to the International Space Station (which moves 30 minutes earlier each day) went from a beautifully lit afternoon shot to a harsh, back-lit morning shot. And subsequently a very early morning for the Astronaut walk out. The same was true for the RSS roll out, which was at night during the first launch attempt, but now would be basking in the warm Florida sun.
The media crowd had thinned out some, but was still a formidable force. We lined up for the usual bomb sniff dog search of our gear and then boarded the bus to the base of the launch pad. With the sun shining and amazing clouds in the background, the shots were fast and furious! Wide angles showing the people, tight shots of the detail of the Orbiter, and artistic shots of the special Tennessee river rock (used for its low friction properties to reduce the possibility of sparks as the Crawler moves from the VAB to the Launch Complex). And before we knew it, it was time to board the buses back to the media complex.
It was then announced that if we wanted to take shots of the Astronaut walk out, we had to be ready for the bomb dogs at 3:45 a.m. for the 5:11 a.m. walk out. Which meant wake up at 2:15 a.m. and drive out to the Cape. A challenge I was ready to accept.
As I made that early morning drive, body still on California time, my subconscious was pondering the possibilities of another delay. Would it happen again and would I fly out for a third time? But a quick check and it was a 70 percent chance of a go! But as the past three weeks had taught me, this was all a lesson of control…or mainly that I was not in control of anything, and much like the astronauts aboard the Orbiter Endeavor, I was just along for the ride.
Flash bulbs went off like fireworks on the Fourth of July as the crew walked out. Hundreds of media and NASA workers showed up in the early dawn to wish these six brave gentlemen a fond farewell as the majority of Florida and the United States slept. They boarded their classic silver “Astrovan” to make the 20-minute trek to their e-ticket ride. And in the footsteps of these Astronauts, we similarly boarded our bus back to the media center – albeit a much shorter and less nerve wracking ride then theirs – with a couple of hours to kill before the targeted liftoff time of 8:56 a.m. EDT rolls around. As time went on, an ominous layer of clouds formed over Endeavor. But the ever-vigilant 45th Weather Squadron from Patrick AFB kept an eye on the outlook as they do for every single launch and landing. All forecasts said it was good to go!
The giant clock, located a mere three miles from the Space Shuttle ticked down. T-minus three hours turned into minutes. The Launch Control Center, located right across the street, had given the green light for the Shuttle to make another attempt to take Cmdr. Mark Kelly and his crew to space on this penultimate flight for the NASA Space Shuttle program. But it was no less exciting then the first.
A large speaker counted down. T-minus nine minutes and the countdown has resumed….T-minus seven minutes – Hydraulic power system (APU) start…T-minus two minutes – crew closes visors…T-minus seven seconds – main engine start…3…2…1…Ignition! The smoke plume was larger then I had ever seen. For a split second I hesitated and didn’t press the shutter button on my camera. I was told that the actual liftoff would not occur till seven seconds after the ignition, so I waited. The flame in the viewfinder grew brighter and brighter. It was like looking directly into the sun, but I didn’t dare take my eye off of it. The rumble hit us, as did the sound of the rockets turning fuel into pure power. Higher and higher it went, and 22 seconds after the Solid Rocket Boosters fired, Endeavor went into the clouds and out of our view.
From what I’m told, that was the shortest viewing of any Space Shuttle launch ever, but for me, it was the longest I had ever seen. And knowing that there were six human beings setting out on the ultimate adventure made it all worthwhile. Hundreds of thousands of people all across the globe united together so that this mission could take off. This adventure was not about six human beings, but about the rest of mankind coming together and sharing in that ultimate adventure, travelling to space. In it’s own way, this trip was my own little adventure. Travelling across the country, at the whim and mercy of nature and NASA, and wanting nothing but to witness the start of another groups journey. Granted my view was pretty nice, but I think their view was a little bit better.