I always knew watching a space-shuttle launch would be an unforgettable experience, but I treated the opportunity as many do their local attractions. I blew it off, never making it a priority. Sure I could drive a few hours south to Titusville, but.. I didn’t. Okay, now– after 29 years and 134 missions– there are but two remaining manned launches. So, if watching a shuttle lift-off has been on your to-do list, start planning.
The only place to get tickets is the Kennedy Space Center website. I tried to buy a couple for the May 14th launch, but lady luck was not on my side. It’s easy; simply connect to the website and enter a virtual waiting room. However, chances of being called are about equal to winning the lottery– but it’s worth a try.
Since my ticket efforts failed, I drove an hour and a half to Daytona, Florida to meet a friend and observe the lift-off from the beach. Daytona is truly too far for an optimal view, but was certainly better than hometown Jacksonville. The best free public viewing areas require one to arrive up to 12 hours early and stake out their claim.
Rain, heavy cloud cover and wind are unfavorable weather conditions for a launch, but May 14th, the last lift-off, blossomed sunny and warm. Crowds began to gather on the world famous beach as the countdown proceeded. Folks with cell phones related the official mission status and a few seconds after T minus zero, the launch pad burst with brilliant billowing flames. Of course, I couldn’t see that view in Daytona, but I was close enough to hear a thunderous roar that shook the air. Very soon, the rocket appeared low on the horizon, trailing a fiery tail.
Spectators gaped and cheered. I almost forgot to take pictures being torn between watching with my eyes or through the lens. As the shuttle climbed higher, I heard whispers “Wow, look at that?” Other comments were more tentative like, “Let’s pray they make it.” Still others uttered typical profanities.
The rocket path produced a billowy trail of white residue that hung in the sky. Just before disappearing from sight, a blast of white light exploded. Then whoosh- it was gone. Quiet, over so quickly. I felt a bit teary and tight in my throat. I’d just observed courageous astronauts riding atop a bomb of sorts and witnessed the rocket jettison out of the earth’s atmosphere. “Awesome,” was the word that came to mind and seemed correct. Yes, that was an awe inspiring sight.
Being present at a shuttle lift-off is an intense experience and in retrospect, I wish I’d made the effort earlier. Unfortunately, launches are scrubbed 60 percent of the time because of weather or a technical issues — sometimes with just minutes left in the countdown. You have to be flexible, which makes it difficult for those out of the area.
Now, the final countdown is on; mark your calendars for the two remaining missions from the Kennedy Space Center. Discovery is scheduled for September 16th and the Endeavor will launch sometime in November. Both plan to rendezvous with the international space station. Join me- I plan to experience these historic events.
To Buy Tickets:
Tickets to view a launching from the Kennedy Space Center NASA Causeway ($56; $46 for ages 3 to 11), the Visitor Complex ($38 and $28) and the Astronaut Hall of Fame ($17 and $13) are available at www.kennedyspacecenter.com three to six weeks before a launch. They sell out quickly and will be in extremely high demand for the last two dates. You can sign up for an e-mail alert to know when they will go on sale.
If You Go:
The Kennedy Space Center Causeway, seven miles from the launching pad on the other side of the Banana River, is the closest public viewing area and offers an excellent, unobstructed views. The effect is magnified by the river’s reflection of the fiery rocket boosters. Tickets sell out within minutes of going on sale.
Another viewing option is from the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, about the same distance from the launching pad as the causeway. Trees and power lines partially obstruct the view, so you have to wait for the shuttle to climb some distance before getting a clear sight. However, the center offers a simulcast on jumbo video screens, a countdown clock and astronaut appearances.
A similar experience can be found at the Astronaut Hall of Fame, in Titusville, about 12 miles from the Kennedy Space Center. However, the view from the Astronaut Hall of Fame is no better than a spot along the side of the road, where there is no admittance fee.
Portions of the Beach Line Expressway, otherwise known as State Road 528, that cross the Indian and Banana rivers offer a good view. There are decent sightlines off U.S. 1 along the Indian River and on State Road A1A along the Atlantic. Some landowners on those roadways may charge parking fees of $20 for a car and $30 for a van.
Space View Park in Titusville, less than 15 miles from the shuttle-launching pad, directly across the Indian River, probably offers the best view beyond the actual Space Center. Shuttle spotters start arriving about 12 hours early to stake out a spot in the city park. The park turns into a picnic, so I hear.