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Was that America? The shuttle Discovery, as seen from afar.

By Chris Combs 

for Breaking Orbit

This is how it ended: We drove a few more miles, parked the car, stopped in at Cosmic Coffee for a cup of joe, and watched a bright speck sear its way out of sight.

About a year ago, my partner, Rachel, and I had heard the nearly thirty-year-old shuttle program was to be cancelled. A joke turned into a whim, and then into a road trip. A few barbecue places and a few beignets later, in November, we were heading from northeast DC down to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to see Discovery launch into mission STS-133.

Barely into the drive, word came that it was delayed two days. Par for the course: do most 1980s cars work on the first try? Too, Discovery has 140 million miles on the odometer.

Over the next few days, we took our time, and so did she: an electrical short blew the next chance, rain claimed another, and a rather unholy failure stormed in for the last whammy of the window: when they tried to gas up, highly explosive hydrogen fuel squirted all over the place. We said “Oh well,” saw some alligators, and drove back up to D.C. The next launch attempt was to be early December: delayed. Mid-December–skipped. Best guess: 4:50 PM, February 24th.

SOON-TO-BE HISTORICAL ARTIFACT: How to see a shuttle launch.

When you want to see a shuttle launch, you can: pull over on a road 10-15 miles away, cozy up to a NASA-employed friend, become a journalist, or buy tickets for various viewing spots at the Visitors Complex. Other options exist, but are widely reviled (Astronaut Hall of Fame) or exceedingly improbable (catching a well-timed flight from Orlando).

combs-sts-133-_DSC9744.jpgAn open area at the complex, some hours before the launch. Photograph by Chris Combs, National Geographic News

We had “coach class” tickets: viewing from the grounds of the NASA Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex–essentially a space theme park, with simulator rides, IMAX movies, and exhibits about spaceflight. (There’s also a glorious animatronic show, Robot Scouts, that gives Hubble a mellifluous voice akin to that of Moviefone.) It’s situated within the sprawling Kennedy Space Center, seven miles and change from the launch site, and has lots of lawns.

Luckier ticketholders, after arriving at the Visitors Complex, could catch a bus to a spot on the NASA causeway–the only way for normal humans to get a direct line-of-sight view of the launch from start to finish–but the line for the buses traced much of the interior perimeter of the place. I’d guess at least a thousand people were stewing in the sun, moving every half hour or so as new buses came in. Each of them could also have travelled thousands of miles to be there; I heard many languages I couldn’t identify.

The rest of us were free to pick a spot on the grass, or bleachers, and plunk down as deemed appropriate. The old hands all had lawn chairs and blankets; we had a stubborn streak and a sack of sandwiches.

Journalists get a very nice view from a different NASA facility (see my colleague Susan’s photos here). Rachel and I are both working journalists, but I talked us out of getting the media pass. The only people around for miles would be journalists and VIPs. I didn’t want to see the launch in such a utilitarian way; for us, this was about the Americans, not just the pyrotechnics. There’s always SpaceVidCast for the HD replay later.

combs-sts-133-_DSC9761_1.jpgThe launch pad is seven miles behind the flags. Have to say, I am deeply envious of this fellow’s shoes. Photograph by Chris Combs, National Geographic News

A note about the mechanics of the KSCVC: After buying tickets online, they mail them to you, along with a parking permit. The permit has an arrival time listed on it: 11:30 AM, in our case, for a launch originally scheduled at 4:40PM in November. In the accompanying paperwork, KSCVC tells you not to arrive any earlier than your arrival time; it also says to arrive no later.

The only way to get to the KSCVC is through a single road, two lanes at best, often one, and the traffic can back up for hours. Managing to arrive precisely at 11:30 AM was certainly beyond me; we left an hour of buffer for traffic and ended up going through the gates at 10:45. Nobody seemed to care.

Another exciting hang-up–more relevant in our November attempts to see the shuttle than this one–is that the launch window changes each time they have to scrub. So if it’s pushed back a day, it’s also often moved by, say, an hour. What this means in terms of your arrival time at KSCVC is left entirely up to the whim of the people manning their phones, several different web sites (each claiming to be authoritative), and Twitter accounts–all of which told us wildly different things about when we should arrive. On one particularly cruel occurrence, we were told to arrive four hours before our printed time, so 7:30, which meant a 4:30 AM wakeup. For a launch at 3PM, which was then scrubbed.

Luckily, this time, the launch was still scheduled for 4:50 PM. Having had our fill of the exhibits and whatnot in the early afternoon, Rachel and I went and sat in the car in the parking lot for a while. This was the only place we could get data reception on our cell phones, and we both had been waiting for our e-mails to send all day. I think it was just overloaded–the wireless carriers must have missed the memo that thousands of people were going to descend on a few square miles.

We headed back in and scored a plop-down spot in the open sun. There was a temporary stage set up, with a big-screen view of NASA TV, which was occasionally spouting commands in a Tourettesian fashion. The bleachers were filled almost to capacity with devoted and sun-sleepy fans; the lawn, at least here, was also people soup. Every update from NASA TV was a welcome distraction from the piping heat.

They put astronaut Sam Durrance up on stage to reduce our restlessness quotient. A few children asked pertinent and probing questions–”What are you going to do after they stop using the space shuttle?”–and one brave youngster asked a half-formed question about the shuttle burning up that seemed to go over his own head. Follow-up question: “What about the sun?” Half an hour passed: 3:30PM.

We relocated to a better view. Throngs of young mission commanders and pilots self-assembled games around us; You be the alien! No, I’ll be the alien! OK, I’ll be the pilot! Many small jumpsuits and big-bubble helmets were evidenced, and a rousing game of Space Tag was nearly responsible for the death of several tripod-mounted cameras.

A shrewd fellow next to us was surprised to hear of the shuttle’s November difficulties. We got talking about the ticket prices; could the program be saved if they charged more? “Would you pay $500?” he asked. “No way!” said Rachel. “How about $400, then?”

On our way down, in the Amtrak dining car, our tablemate for breakfast had smiled a bit when asked about the shuttle. “My dad was NASA,” he said, “and he worked on every launch vehicle, including the shuttle.” Later, in a restaurant about ten miles down the island, a fellow sat down at the bar next to us. When asked his occupation, he said, “Payload,” nonchalant–of course, everyone here is doing something with the shuttles, right?

We scheduled our last water-drinking for 3:45. You wouldn’t want to be occupied at the big moment, and thanks to the crowding, the restrooms had long since devolved into a Lord of the Flies scenario; I could’ve made serious money pushing paper products freelance.

From our new spot on the plush grass, NASA TV was just a Charlie Brown mumble. News reached us via an old-fashioned medium: excited strangers. “They’ve put a hold on the countdown!” Well, yes, there are several built-in holds, of ten minutes and 45… nothing to worry about.

I strapped a remote camera to a fence-post and fiddled with it. Low Battery, shoot, let’s hope for the best.

The countdown couldn’t be heard or seen, so we nervously checked our phones. They seemed to be running slow: it said 4:53, 4:54. We squinted and sweated. Rumor crackled through: There was some kind of computer problem. “Look, look!” someone said.

Then it seemed as though the treeline was a bit of kindling some giant was trying to light–a little puff or two, and suddenly it caught, flash-bulb bright but orange, almost blinding but captivating–what’s that bright little squiggle heading so resolutely upwards? Why’s it moving so fast? Is everything all right?–and then a deadening roar, delay much reduced, thank you NASA TV–and just a second or two in, the dawning realization that yes, space shuttle Discovery was away from Earth.

combs-sts-133-_DSC9827.jpgWish I could’ve talked to this couple. If you know them, leave a comment. Photograph by Chris Combs, National Geographic News

I must have been the only wacko in the place that then looked the other direction.

The packed lawn could have been a statue garden. The little motion I saw was mostly people pointing or photographing, and alarmed birds flying overhead. One young gentleman, perhaps two years of age, was just as excited by his parents’ distraction, and took off into the lawn on all fours, tromping and admiring blades of grass.

combs-sts-133-_DSC9823.jpgThere she–and he–goes. Photograph by Chris Combs, National Geographic News

Aside: I was expecting the launch to be a lot louder. This wasn’t so much the rocket’s doing as the crowd’s, I guess: for those few seconds, everyone really did seem to be holding their breath.

combs-sts-133-_DSC1413.jpg It wasn’t too hard to imagine Discovery as an out-of-control can of whipped cream, puffing out of sight. Photograph by Chris Combs, National Geographic News

At some point, the spot that was six people in a big white plane stopped blooming clouds, but kept on going. Motes fell away from it–”Look, it’s the solid rocket boosters!” said 500 people at once–but the speck Discovery continued to slip away into the bright sky.

After a few minutes of contemplation, folding chairs were folded and camera results investigated; a few people seemed to be bolting for the restrooms. Rachel and I met up again, a bit stunned, and strategized about traffic and maybe tried not to cry a little and saw a lovely IMAX about the space station.

combs-sts-133-_DSC9844.jpgA few minutes after the launch. Photograph by Chris Combs, National Geographic News

Perhaps it’s a generational thing–but who among us didn’t put on that chintzy plastic helmet and dream about shooting to the moon? Who didn’t play Space Tag, or own a zero-G pen, or build cardboard rocketships?

The shuttle isn’t the end of all that–it’s easy to ascribe too much meaning to the endings we see in advance. There will be Falcons, X1s, Armadillos, and other workhorses that can take eight-year-old imaginations (and science) into the heavens. There can still be “Sputnik moments,” even when we’re all holding hands to keep a $157 billion space station in orbit.

I don’t mean to make light of the shuttle’s demise; but let’s not get distracted with the loss of a tool, or a culture, or a symbol. Instead, America is losing the livelihood of countless Space Coast workers and residents. This is its real impact.

Some hours later, I was shocked to learn that there were four seconds left in the launch window. It all went so fast, didn’t it? They’d delayed for minutes because of a computer problem. They really only had two seconds to work with, says NASA. How did that happen? Was it just a button, or did someone have to hear “Go”? What if they mis-heard the command, would we be driving back to Kennedy even now? It’s hard for me to imagine two-second precision in anything that involves so many hands.

“I tried to go [see the launch] a few times, but it was always scrubbed,” said a researcher I spoke with later at a bunker-like laboratory deep within the University of Central Florida’s sprawling campus, some 35 miles (55 kilometers) away from Cape Canaveral. “I stopped trying,” he said.

But no big deal: the bright arc of six astronauts climbing into the sky was clear to see from the lab’s front door.

combs-sts-133-_DSC9835.jpgPhotograph by Chris Combs, National Geographic News

Chris Combs is the photo editor of the National Geographic News web site.