I was in Orlando last week on business. On Wednesday, after we finished working, our cameraman, Dan, asked if he could borrow the rental car to drive over to the coast and watch the shuttle launch. The boss said yes and I decided to ride along.
We didn’t know what to expect, except that we had been checking during the day to make sure it was still go. We were only about 45 miles away. We had a GPS so we just set it for Kennedy Space Center and went. We figured the closer we got the more likely we’d be able to see something. They say you can see it from Tampa when it’s clear, but it wasn’t that clear. A little hazy.
Part of the fun of it was the group experience. When we got to the entrance of Kennedy Space Center (the tourist part), everyone was pulling off and parking by the side of the road so we did too. It was probably 15 minutes to lift-off at that point. We followed the crowd and stopped where the security people wouldn’t let us go further. We were on the left side of the road, which is just open land. The Space Center is on the right side. There were lots of people there, too, inside a fence, and security wasn't letting anyone else in.
Naturally, Dan took the camera and tripod, a professional-grade HD DV camera at that. He’s freelance and it’s his camera, so no clients were harmed.
We were on the mainland side of the causeway that leads to the cape itself, so although we were about 12 miles away from the launch pad, most of it was open water.
Dan also had a small AM radio and was listening to a local station that was covering the launch. As we stood and waited in the 90+ degree heat (no shade available), we chatted with our neighbors. Some do this every time there’s a launch. Others were like us, doing it on the spur of the moment. We were told that the people allowed to cross the causeway, which gets you within six miles, get there in the morning and stay all day. There was a very elderly man next to me, with his family. They brought a chair for him, but he stood up when it got close.
Because Dan had the radio, we were doing the countdown for the people around us, but when we thought there were 30 seconds left, a voice came on the radio to mention that the NASA feed was delayed by 30 seconds, and in fact the shuttle had just launched. Sure enough, the crowd screamed. Our view was slightly blocked by a distant palm tree, so we didn’t see it until about two beats later. The most striking thing was how bright it is. We could barely see the vessel, mostly just this very bright flame, followed by gigantic clouds of smoke.
As soon as we saw it, the elderly man next to me started saying, under his breath, “wait for the sound wave, wait for the sound wave.” It took maybe 20 seconds until we heard anything, then this roar started very softly and grew. It was loud but not explode-in-your-chest loud, as I guess it is when you’re closer.
We saw it for about a minute, maybe, before it disappeared into the clouds, and the sound faded out as well. Everybody turned around and went back to their cars. Show's over.
Traffic was heavy going back, as the group we were in was soon joined by traffic from the causeway. We drove through a very severe thunderstorm, just to add to the Florida experience. All in all it worked out great, since we spent most of the time in the air conditioned car and probably no more than 20 minutes out in the sun. We basically drove there, saw it, and drove back, but it was totally worth it.
And on the anniversary of the moon landing no less.