Thursday, December 14, 2006

Launched at last, launched at last, I thank God it launched at last


So, I was fortunate enough to witness the Discovery launch in person this Saturday. This also coincided with my first extended vacation with my 5-year old twins all by my lonesome, as my wife was unable to join us. This was an adventure in quite a few ways, in patience among other things.

I grew up in Rye with one of the astronauts, Nicholas Patrick, who is a mission specialist who will be the primary operator of the robotic arm during this mission to the International Space Station (ISS). He is also one of 5 first-time spacefarers out of 7 total on this flight. And they had been waiting for a long time, over 6 years because of the delay due to the Challenger (?) disaster. It was while meeting all the other people that Nick had invited down to Florida that I realized exactly how entwined our lives had been. While he had gone to school in England, he spent summers in Rye, and we knew each other from there, although I was more friends with his younger brother Rupert. After college when I was looking for a job, he helped me get an interview at GE Aircraft Engines in Lynn, and I stayed at his apartment in Chelsea when I came up for the interview. I ended up working there for 4 years at the same time he was there. I also got my Masters at MIT while he was there getting his PhD. And he met a long-time girlfriend who he lived with for awhile through me. But I digress.

He contacted me sometime around the new year (I think) to let me know that his launch was probably going to occur sometime in December, and that if we were interested in attending, to let him know as soon as possible so that he could add us to his 'friends and family' list, of which there are different levels. After hemming and hawing a bit, I got back to him to let him know that we were going to be able to attend, although it would be just me and the twins. That was a definite leap, planning to travel as a single parent with two still reasonably young children. The whole event was an exercise in uncertainty. We were exhorted early on to make our travel plans as flexible as possible due to launch uncertainties. It was only a few months ago that the final launch window was even established, and the original launch was going to be mid-December. After checking flights and prices, I decided that I could wait quite a bit of time before buying airline tickets. And it was a good thing I did, as in October, the launch date was moved back a week to December 7th. Finally, in early November I purchased the first ticket, a one-way ticket down on Jetblue for the 3 of us, departing the morning of the 6th. Also complicating matters was that Nick was hosting a reception the night before the launch, and he had reduced flexibility for rescheduling that. Oh, and by the way, he would not be attending the reception, because the astronauts are in quarantine the final 4 or so days before launch so that they don't get sick while they are in the air. So his wife would be hosting.

However, I still didn't know what I was going to do down there with the kids. My first plan was to spend the week through the following Tuesday or Wednesday, but as time went on, that seemed overly aggressive, both financially and for my mental health, so I eventually dialed it back to a Wed-Sun visit, hoping that the shuttle would take off sometime in that window. And I also got tickets flying back from Tampa instead of Orlando, saving over $100 a person for the three of us. I didn't book the hotel until 2 days before we left, using Orbitz, some cheesy Ramada Inn in Cocoa. For a separate travel trip, based on the experience one of my teammates had at nationals, I ended up using to get my rental car. I already had a reservation in hand from Alamo at $30 a day for an intermediate. Using priceline for the rental car, I ended up with a compact for $15 a day, basically half price. Unlike hotels or airfares, you know EXACTLY what you are going to get, so the risk is minimal for prepaying for your car (unless you don't even fly down), which is why I waited until the day before to get the prepaid rental.

So, Wednesday morning we pack up the kids and Georgia gives us a ride to the airport to catch a 10AM flight at Logan. We get dropped off, I quickly grab a cart from the curb, load it up, and off we go to check in. We have two tiny rolling suitcases for the kids carrying their clothes, a backpack with all of the electronics (laptop, camera, video camera, etc.), and one large rolling suitcase with all of my clothes and various incidentals, which we check in. I hadn't checked in a bag in a long time… I had purchased 3 sets of headphones along with a 1-3 jack splitter to watch some videos on my laptop during the flight. Naturally, I had forgotten about Jetblues DirecTV feed, which ended up being a lifesaver. Here is the plug for Jetblue. If you have kids and you can possibly do it, fly Jetblue for extended flights. My kids watched the cartoon channel for a solid 3 hours on the way down. I literally had to dangle food in front of their faces for them to notice and eat. It was definitely a pleasure. Jetblue will be my airline of choice going forward for any extended kid flights within fiscal limits.

We arrive in Orlando, zip over to the Alamo check-in, get my receipt and instructions to go pick any car in the Compact portion of the lot, and off we go to the garage. Naturally the compact cars are the furthest from the terminal since they are the least popular, and who wants to cater to the cheapskates getting compacts anyway? Well, we finally get to the compact lanes only to find them filled with SUVs and minivans. I find an Alamo person and ask where the compacts are, and she says 'Oh, they are treating these as compacts'. Woo-hoo! We pick some Chrysler minivan, and off we go! 4 days in an exquisitely outfitted minivan, complete with DVD player and screen (naturally I didn't bring any down…), all for $87.88 complete. Beat that.

We drive off to the Ramada in Cocoa, check into the room around 3:30PM, non-smoking two double beds, quick rest, and then off to the Kennedy Space Center where the reception is being held. We get to the Space Center, park the car, go to the will-call window to pick up our prepurchased launch tickets and all-access pass to the complex for the next day, then get our pins and tickets for the reception, which apparently is being held at the Saturn V building near the Vehicle Assembly Building, the tallest single-story building in the world. From this point on, it is reunion night, as I am running into old friends from Rye and otherwise, people that I have encountered at GE, MIT, Rye, etc. Good times had by all, and then the reception ends around 8PM (I think). The kids are incredibly well-behaved, we grab the buses back, drive back to the hotel, and quickly plop the kids in the one double bed in pajamas post teeth brushing. They quickly fall asleep, and in the meantime I turn on the laptop to take advantage of the free wireless internet access. I connect to their router only to find out I'm not getting out. A quick call to the front desk confirms that there is a problem with BellSouth, and that it should be fixed by morning. I disconnect, try and connect through dialup, and the line is so crappy that I am only connecting at 4kb. I shutdown and get to sleep reasonably early, as there isn't much else I can do in a pitch dark room.

Next day, naturally kids are up at 6:45AM. I slowly roll out of bed, we get dressed and head over to the free continental buffet. Feed the kids scrambled eggs, apples, cereal, bagels, basically stuffing for the day, grab some extra apples, and off we go. We get to the space center just after the opening at 9AM. Originally we park in the lot with the rest of the hoi polloi, but as we are walking toward the entrance, I notice that another lot that is even closer has only one car that has just pulled up and disgorged it's contents. I angle over to the car, and sure enough, it has the special pink placard that I also got for the day's launch. I quickly run the kids back to the car, get in, drive back out, go to the cones blocking that lot and show them the placard. They let us in, we park right next to that other car, and waltz in to the complex. BIG mistake as we'll find out later.

Talk about a long day. Theoretically we have to make do until 4PM, when we are going to have to board another bus to take us out to the causeway, which is the closest public access to the launch site, and the bus tickets cost $15/person roundtrip, even though it is only a 3-mile bus ride. Furthermore, the space center is a rip-off. While the exhibits and movies are fine, if you want to actually purchase anything while you are there, it is all exorbitantly priced. Built with our tax dollars and originally run by the government, they turned it over to a private concern which pays them like 7% of gross. Well, complete ripoff, including charging like $3 for a small aquafina, etc. We saw both 3-D Imax movies, one about the moon landings called Desolation something or other, and Space Station, narrated by Tom Cruise, which I had previously gotten out of the library to show the kids to get them excited. Very different in 3-D and on the huge screen. They both remembered seeing the Space Station movie, and enjoyed both of them. We also saw the Mad Mars show, some other stuff. Naturally they were the most excited to play in the kids play area, which had one of those climbing structures with all the tubes, etc, and a space shuttle to play in. We probably spent a couple of hours there combined. We also walking around the Rocket garden, putting the kids in the tiny capsules (still hard to believe astronauts staying in those capsules for days on end basically unable to move). Around 1PM, thought about going out to the car to change into our night clothes for the launch, but the line to get back in was huge and not moving, so back into the space center. Finally, around 3PM we check and no line, so we go out to the car, change into pants and sweatshirts (temperatures supposed to drop into the 40s during the night, what the hell!), grab the jackets along with some more food and the rest of the camera gear including monopod, and go back in. Everything I had read had said no backpacks on launch day, so I'm carrying everything around in two large plastic bags. First thing I notice once inside is people carrying around backpacks. Naturally, I haven't even brought the backpack in the car, left it in the hotel, so I'm screwed.

We get to the buses at 4PM only to find out they won't start leaving for the causeway until 6:30PM (through 8:30PM) for a 9:37PM launch. Apparently they wanted us to all GET to the space center by 4PM because of security concerns but this was never made clear at all. So, we had to fill another couple of hours with stuff. I think this was when we went and saw the second IMAX. Well, during the 50 minute IMAX movie the temperature must have dropped at least 15 degrees and there was no blue sky left. Also in there was a nice long 20 minute timeout for the kids where they had to sit 5 yards apart with their backs against the walls because of accumulated disobedience and disrespect to me and each other. After that, things calmed down pretty well and they ended up being pretty good the rest of the trip. Finally we get in line for the buses around 7PM. We are hanging with Margot Hoffman and husband and two kids (originally from Rye) who we have run into earlier. Definitely helps the time go by to have other kids to play with. In the bus line, we are right next to a woman who it seems like has been to every launch, so we get a good running commentary on what will happen, what things will be like at the causeway etc. Just to keep things in perspective, there are over 40 busloads going out to the causeway, so this is a slow process. We're in line for at least a half hour before finally boarding a bus. Naturally, once on the bus, Catherine promptly befriends another little girl, Kaly (sp?) and I befriend the parents.

One thing I haven't mentioned yet is the HUGE element of uncertainty in the whole launch process. This Slate article talks about it in depth HERE. There is a tiny launch window every night of 10 minutes, and a whole bunch of factors have to be OK, including no cloud cover below 6000 feet (in case of an abort and they have to glide back for landing so they have to see the runway), good weather in at least one of the two alternate landing sites with same cloud restrictions, one in Spain and one in France, no rain, no lightning nearby, can't be below 40 or above 90, etc. Well, we had been hearing throughout the day that the weather was going to probably be bad, and that both alternate landing sites had negative forecasts. And what was worse is that the causeway bus ticket was non-refundable. If the flight was scrubbed and you HADN'T used the ticket yet, it was still good for the 'day of the launch'. But once you used it, even if it didn't launch, you had to buy another ticket. Talk about a racket. You know those bus guys were wishing for multi-night scrubs...

We eventually get out to the causeway to hang out in blustery wind. Where we get dropped off, there is a scrubby island between us and some of the launch sites, so we aren't sure which one is actually the shuttle. We walk to the end of the island and find out that the one with all the spotlights is the shuttle site, and it is obstructed by the island. So, we go back to the kids to inform them and the other adults that we need to move if we want to see the best vantage point. Meanwhile, Jim (Kaly's dad) has been in contact with a friend who is part of the decision making team as to whether to launch and we are getting constant updates on the status. Spain has cleared up but the main issue is the depth of the cloud cover here. Right now the clouds are at 5000 feet, so they are going to wait until the very last second to scrub. We wait, wait, wait…and all of a sudden, the word makes the rounds at 9:37. Launch scrubbed. We forlornly traipse back to the same bus and get in to wait for the LONG line back. We go back to the space center in the same order we came, which is bad for us as we took one of the longer buses. Actually, in a fairness sense, I like that they did it that way, so there is actual incentive to get there early and you are rewarded for it. On the way back, Christian falls asleep in my lap while Catherine is still yakking with Kaly. We get back, and I struggle to get Christian up. He unhappily walks about halfway back to the car before completely melting down and I have to carry him the rest of the way. Now comes the other bad news. Because we were the 'first car in' we are going to be effectively the last car out, as we need to go down 8 rows of cars, each of which is alternating cars with the long line to get out. We wait 5 minutes before we actually move one car. And then I spy the opportunity for which I am legend. The original hoi polloi lot is mostly cleared out (naturally) and there are no cars moving and no line there. That lot is separated from ours by grass at some points, concrete pillars at others. However, right across from me, there are two sets of concrete pillars that appear to be just wide enough to fit the minivan, and it is concrete their between the lots, not grass. There are yellow lines, etc, but hey, it is going to be a nightmare otherwise. Even after I spot this opportunity, it takes 5 minutes to be able to join the long line of cars leaving (and this only involved moving forward one space!). After looking around to make sure there are no official types looking, I deftly weave between the pillars, barely clearing them, and then we are home free. It only took 1 more minute to exit the entire complex, which would have taken at LEAST another 45 minutes. We got back to the hotel by 11:30PM. Christian and Catherine for the first 5 minutes in the van were crying saying they felt sick before they finally fell blissfully asleep for the 30 minute drive. Speaking to some of the other people the next day, they didn't get home until 12:30AM-1AM. Woo-hoo! Oh yeah, and the next scheduled launch day is for Saturday (skipping Friday) but the weather report is crummy for Sat and Sun also. But this means that Friday is completely open.

In the meantime, the wireless connection is still not working at the Ramada Inn, which leads me to cynically believe that they actually have never had an internet connection, but just assume that nobody stays at the hotel long enough to notice. I had contracted the room for only two nights, figuring that after the launch, we would go off to Orlando and stay there and do stuff. When I try and access dialup, I get no dial tone whatsoever. I call the front desk to complain, they send someone right out to my dark room (kids are asleep). He tests the phone, cord, and finally replaces the outlet panel and then the phone works. And the signal is cleaned up because now I can actually connect at 26kb, which is still a dog. Amazing how you get used to broadband connections. Remember when we were psyched to get a 16kb dial-up connection? Scary. However, the connect never lasts long enough for me to do proper research and actually get a room in Orlando. VERY annoying. Finally, I call the front desk and ask what would be involved in staying another night. They say I would have to 'check out' and then pay the prevailing rate, which is $20 more than I'm paying now. And with no guarantee of internet? No way. I shut the laptop down and go to sleep.

Next morning kids are up at 6:45AM for another early start…OY! We pack up, stuff our faces at the buffet again, check out, then off to Orlando and Seaworld. Did I mention that it was only supposed to get to 59 degrees? It sure felt like it. We get to Seaworld a little after the 9AM opening. I see a bunch of people in t-shirts walking in, which is scary because it is cold. I dress the kids in sweatshirts and I'm in a long sleeve heavy shirt. I'm also carrying a separate camera bag with digital camera and video camera. Big mistake, as it is too inconvenient to keep going to the bag to bring something out to snap or video. And it is actually getting colder and windier throughout the day. So much so that around 1PM, we eventually go back to the car for a quick rest and food, and put the kids in their winter jackets, and I put on my jacket, which is great because I can put the camera in one pocket and the video camera in the other for quick deployment. We go back in to catch the 1PM Shamu show called Believe. Corny and yet very impressive. We saw 4 different shows, the first a very funny pirate spoof involving 3 sea lions and an otter, the next a dolphin show, the killer whales (Shamu), and finally Odyssea, which had nothing to do with animals but was more like Cirque de Soleil and was actually REALLY cool. That was our last show of the day as we quickly left the park around 5PM. Meanwhile, I had spoken during the day to Georgia and asked if she could book us a room at a cheap 2-star hotel on I-Drive (international) which was where seaworld was. After much back and forth, she got us a cheap room at a Quality Inn. We pulled up to check-in, and after they didn't find us, we realized that there was a 2nd Quality Inn 1 mile down on the same street. We DID show up in the computer there. They gave us a room facing the heated pool, so we decided to give it a whirl. At this point, it is probably 45 degrees and still blustery wind. So I prep the kids, wrapping a towel around them while I have nothing, then we run halfway around the fenced-in pool to the gate, quickly run in, and jump in the pool. Well, it's heated, but not quite enough to make it pleasurable for long. We hang out for about 15 minutes, and then I get out of the pool to prep them again. As each one gets out, I quickly wrap a towel around them, and then we sprint back. I'm FREEZING at this point. We get to the hotel room, quickly run to the bathroom and take off bathing suits while I turn on the shower, and then we all take a nice relaxing hot shower for the next half hour. Oh yeah, what I forgot to mention is that while waiting in the stands for the Shamu show, I happened to look at Catherine's head and saw this clot of what literally looked like s***. I sniffed it, couldn't identify it, then dragged them off to the bathroom to try and wash it out. It didn't come out easily or quickly (or completely), but at least she was presentable. So that hot shower was particularly necessary. I shampooed her hair 3 times to make sure it was gone. After the shower, dress up and off to eat. We check out the hotel's all you can eat buffet. After they say that 1 kid per parent eats free, and the second kid is cheap, I eschew getting back in the car to find someplace else, and we stuff our faces to the tune of $22. Great deal. Back to the hotel room, put the kids before 8PM for once, and then find out that the internet access in this hotel costs money. The front desk says that there is free wireless in the lobby, which I consider for about 1 millisecond (kids are asleep, remember), and then pay the $10 for the day. Well, this time I make it worth it, as I'm online for about 3 hours, catching up on work and also researching the next nights hotel, as we're heading back to Cocoa/Canaveral for the improbable launch. I'm switching between Orbitz and a couple of other sites trying to identify the best deals for over an hour and half when I finally try Expedia and find a ~3 star hotel advertised everywhere else for $110 for only $77 (the cheapest place at ANY leave is $64 a night in that area). I immediately book the room and then go to sleep comfortable that my laissez-faire attitude towards traveling and not making fixed plans is going to work out again (there is no gotcha coming up, it actually did).

The next morning, up at 6:45AM again *&$*@&#$*&#. It's like they have a built-in alarm clock. This time I let them draw for about 45 minutes while I rest, as we have nothing on the agenda today other than a 12PM lunch. The previous night, Nick's mom had called my cell phone to leave a message that she didn't know we were in town, and she would love if we could join her for lunch at the Cape Winds hotel in Canaveral at 12PM. Naturally, I didn't know if it was just us or a larger group, but the weather was going to be a little nicer finally, so why not. We check out of the Quality Inn in Orlando and drive back across 528 to Canaveral. Oh, btw, tolls on that road are a ripoff, something like 3 tolls for $3-$4 dollars combined in 6 miles. We head down to Cocoa Beach to the Pier, which is basically a long bar. It isn't open at the moment, but I can imagine it is quite the party scene at night. There were some surfers catching waves next to the pier, so the kids and I watched them for awhile before I noticed a blue balloon in the sand. Sure enough, it was a small Portuguese man-o-war that had washed up. After that, I noticed that they were all over the beach, including really tiny ones that you could barely see. At one point, Christian, who was running around in bare feet, mentioned that something had stung him on the side of his ankle, so we quickly scotched the whole wet beach thing, backing up into the dry sand which was jelly-free. We were finally able to walk around without a jacket, although we were still in pants as opposed to shorts. Finally we left the pier around 11AM to head over to the Cape Winds and hopefully run into some people on the beach (we had learned that it was a larger scale lunch by this time). After spending a half hour lazing around alone, other people started showing up with a bunch of kids and we stayed there until about 12:45 before heading up to Ms. Patrick's suite for lunch. We packed probably 30 people in a tiny suite for 2 hours of food, wine, and conversation (we won the party naturally) before heading off to check in to our third hotel in 4 nights, the Comfort Inn and Suites in Cocoa Beach. I was hoping for a suite with a separate room, but naturally their definition of 'suite' was one with a sink and stove, but still all one room. At the luncheon, I had also decided that we were going to eschew going back to the space center to try and catch the launch, given the crowds and late night from the previous attempt. Instead, we made plans with another woman and her daughter to meet at the Cocoa Beach pier for ice cream and to watch the launch from there.

So of course just after we check in, Nick's wife Rossana calls us to let us know that if we want, we now have access to the VIP viewing site which is about half the distance that we were the previous night. We have about an hour to decide, so I hang up, skull with the kids, and finally call back to say we are in. After all, this could be a once in a lifetime experience. By now it is about 4:30 and we have to quickly head back to the Cape Wind to pick up a parking pass that will get us back into the space center, where we will have to register and get our passes and catch the bus to the VIP site. All in all this proves to be a MUCH better experience, as the VIP viewing site is right outside the building where the reception had been held Wednesday night. So we don't have to hang out in the cold but get to stay in the warm building and do stuff while we wait. We also get to see a bunch of our compatriots, including Tim and Nick's brother Rupert and their associated family members. According to them, the crowd is probably half the size of the one Thursday night, which is of course why we were able to upgrade in the first place. The general scuttlebutt is that the launch conditions are starting to look more favorable. It is warming up, the sky is clearing, and people start to trickle out to the bleachers around 8PM for the 8:38 launch. We setup on the grass in front of the bleachers so that I can have an unobstructed view for my video camera and camera. I'm setting up my camera so that it is in manual focus to not waste time focusing, manual aperture and shutter speed so that it doesn't try and hold the shutter open for 2 seconds because of the dark, figuring that the launch will provide enough light, setting it up for non-stop shooting, and then mounting the video camera to the monopod that I had brought along for additional stability. I practice a few times, then turn off the cameras so that they don't all of a sudden time out right before the launch. About 15 minutes out, we get the announcement that everything is clear and that they are a go barring last second hardware failure. Everyone cheers, and we watch the countdown clock which kicks in when it reaches 9 minutes and 59 seconds. A few more cheers as the time approaches, then I spark up the video gear, take a shot of the countdown clock as it reaches 10 seconds, everybody counts down at loud, then point at the shuttle, and... LIFTOFF!

Still pretty dark, but you can start to see the gases shooting out the base of the shuttle, and then you hear the rumble as the shuttle starts to lift up. Then we see the long lick of flame as the shuttle accelerates off the pad and the sounds hits us. It is a veritable Ragnarok of flame and sound. After a few hundred yards, the shuttle starts tilting over and going off at an angle (as planned). By this time, it seems almost as bright as daytime around the launch area. The shuttle starts to fade into the distance, and then all of a sudden, everybody gets up to start heading towards the buses, as we have about 10 minutes from launch before there is a good chance of being bathed in a mild hydrochloric acid rain, which is a standard byproduct of the launch, and the wind is definitely blowing in our direction from the launch site. We get into the bus and start talking with a fellow passengers. Of course I had screwed up the camera so that the non-stop shooting hadn't worked, not remembering that when you turn the camera back on, it automatically switches back to single-shot, so I had only one good shot, which is below. However, it should give you a good idea of how close we were considering that the camera had only a 6x magnification. If I can do it, I'll extract the video and put it somewhere.

This time the bus ride back to the visitor center is much less of a wait, and I had parked in a much smarter location right next to the exit. It was unnecessary as the parking lot was nothing like the prior night, and we got all the way out to the road a mere 5 minutes later. Catherine falls asleep immediately and I spend the next 10 minutes reviewing the launch with Christian, trying to pump it up for him so that it will be more memorably. He comes up with the classic expression "It was so bright it was like breakfast". And also refers to the sound as a volcano. Back at the hotel, I put them down, although this time they take a little longer going down as they're still a little wired. I finally have a 'free' internet connection, although the Ethernet cable that the room had was bad but fortunately I was a nerd and had brought my own. Caught up on some stuff, and figured out what we were going to do the next day before taking the flight out of Tampa at 4:45.

Every night I had set the alarm clock for 7:30AM, but it never reached it as again the kids are up at 6:45. We (I) pack for the final time, put everything in the car and then get on the road to Tampa and the Lowry Park Zoo. We make great time, getting there in about 1.5 hours. Now this is what you can do with a zoo when you're competing in a hotbed like the Tampa-Orlando corridor with Busch Gardens, Disney, Universal all clamoring for your entertainment dollar. It also helps that it never really gets very cold. We see most of the animals over the 4 hours that we are there, and then head off at 2:30PM to the airport. Catch the 4:45 flight, kids are again glued to the Boomerang cartoon network, railing when the plane loses the signal due to turbulence or other reasons.

For those Frisbee players that actually read this far, I tried to hook up a number of times with Billy Layden while I was down there. He lives in Canaveral, and we spoke often about who was doing what for the launch. He has special access to the space center due to some work he was doing, so he was able to get privileged access to a viewing site also, just not the VIP site. We had planned to get together after the launch at my hotel assuming that our room was going to be a true suite. However, we got back to the hotel around 10, and I finally remembered and called Billy at 10:45 to let him know that I was sitting there in the dark and that we weren't going to be able to hook up. Guess I'll see him in the fall...

And there you have it. Because this was so long, for the most part it is unedited, so please don't point out grammar stuff. Thanks Jim.

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