So I clicked on the "I'm attending" link, not really sure whether I'd be able to realistically do so. However, some friends of mine noticed and I started getting messages asking if I was going, and if I had an event pass and so forth. I explained that I didn't have a pass, and hadn't yet made any travel arrangements. One person mentioned on FB that she might have an extra pass, so I requested it, but it went to someone else. I poked around on the airline sites, but the nearby airports only had expensive flights at inconvenient times, so I didn't pursue it. Then I started hearing from aramintamd and vvalkyri that they might still have an extra pass (providing an interesting illustration of a social networking site actually yielding a real benefit). At this point, the launch was in a few days, but I tried at the travel sites again, and managed to nab a workable flight into Orlando. I was unable to choose a seat, but that wasn't important. I realized that this was a basically insane quest. I was going to fly down in the morning and back in the evening. If anything went wrong, I'd miss the launch. I already had plans to see the Mummers Show of Shows that weekend, so I couldn't stick around.
I was well aware that I might end up burning a lot of time, money, and trouble for nothing, but there are plenty of people who had VIP invitations from NASA, and had spent a lot more time, money, trouble, and emotional energy, and had it come to naught, sometimes at the very last minute.
Rental car rates were pretty high, so I didn't reserve one, figuring that I could simply troll the row of rental counters when I got there, and they'd likely offer me a decent rate to keep me from just going to the next counter.
I started perusing the area with Google Earth, figuring that I might not score a pass, and could just go to Cocoa, where I grew up, and watch from the same spot I viewed the Apollo launches. I couldn't really find the spot on Google Earth, but I figured anywhere along the Indian River would afford a decent view. I also noticed the Bennett Causeway bridge was right nearby, and had parks and fishing areas flanking it, those would be dandy spots too.
After some discussion and shuffling, it was determined that there would be at least one spare pass, for either the visitors' center viewing area or the Astronaut Hall of Fame one. I was in no position to be picky, either one would do. Some more discussion revealed that AHOF was maybe 12km from the launch pad, and examination of the maps indicated that Cocoa was maybe 20km, not really much farther.
As the days ticked away, I realized I had to somehow get physical possession of the NASA pass. All the sane people were going down much earlier, and my flight was far too late to meet up with them in Florida. I'd have to go collect it in person before I left. And this wouldn't be easy, involving dealing with the DC beltway during rush hour. The pass got handed off to a different person, who lived even farther away, which didn't help matters either. After some frantic attempts to reach each other, we finally spoke on the phone and mutually realized it wasn't going to happen. I'd simply go with the Cocoa location, and someone else was hoping for the pass would get it.
I realized that there would be some competition for rental cars, so I asked fizzygeek (who had the day off) if she was willing to try to find a decent rate for me. There were no good rates to be had at this point, but she found one that wasn't too unreasonable. She also asked me if I could ask vvalkyri if she could pick up some commemorative T shirts, since she'd be on site. Yeah, she was happy to.
I figured I'd bring along a scanner, so I could listen in, but when I went to pack my scanner, I found it wouldn't power on for some reason. So grabbed a portable ham radio, rounded up its charger, and left it to charge overnight. I decided my NASA tee shirt would be appropriate, so I wore that. I woke up early, drove to Dulles, breezed through security, and went to my gate, where chaos reigned. It seems that my plane to Orlando was supposed to come from Orlando, but it had a serious mechanical failure and wouldn't be flying anytime soon. Planes from NYC and Boston were also having issues. I was impressed with Jetblue, however - they came up with a spare plane in Orlando and sent it up to us. It's extremely difficult and expensive to keep spare planes around, so this was a very nice surprise. It took a while, however, so my flight would be delayed. While I was waiting for it, I finally got my boarding pass, and I even scored a window seat! The ticket agent correctly guessed I was going to see the shuttle launch. I think the NASA shirt might have been a clue.
The flight to Orlando took longer than expected, even though they were trying to make up time. It seems that at this point, it was close enough to the launch that it had to be rerouted away from that part of Florida. The pilot reported the weather in Orlando was warm and overcast. I hoped the clouds would disperse in time for the launch. I didn't have any checked baggage, so I made straight for the rental car counter. As it happens, the vendor I had was the only one with a line, and it was a long line. I considered trying one of the vacant counters to see if they might offer me something useful, but the line was moving reasonably fast and the folks in front of me (who'd flown in from France, apparently) noticed the shirt and asked if I was going to a launch, and I got the rest of the way through line whilst chatting with them.
I got my car, plugged my phone and camera into the charger, hooked up the GPS, set it as a hands-free device for the phone, and told it to get me to Cocoa, avoiding traffic. Its first route had 81 minutes of delays, but after some cogitation, it came up with a route with only a few minutes of delays. I went zigzagging across Florida, occasionally parallelling roads clogged with stopped cars; roads I was glad I wasn't on. Yay for traffic avoidance! It was at this point that I realized I'd forgotten to bring along my binoculars. Oops. It was handy I'd set up the hands-free function, because I did get a call. It was vvalkyri, asking what kind of shirt fizzygeek would like. Apparently there were several types available. I guessed she'd like the large screen printed logo one, and asked if she could get one of the "I was there" ones for me as well.
By the time I got to Cocoa, the sky had mostly cleared, yielding an absolutely beautiful day for the launch. I decided that I was going to try my luck on the bridge, so I headed that way, and took the last turnoff before the bridge, onto a sandy area where a few cars were parked.
Launch was scheduled in about 30 minutes at that point, and more cars were collecting all the time. While the bridge doesn't boast a sidewalk, it has huge shoulders on both sides, and I saw some people up there, so I headed up the bridge. Florida is a very flat state, so even a little elevation can give a commanding view of the surroundings. I dialed my radio into the local repeater, which was patched in to the launch commentator, giving the launch status in real time. This is quite a long bridge, so it took me some time to get up to the middle of it, by which time cars were parking along both shoulders. I chose a spot near the apex, along with a decent crowd of other people.
I could pick out the VAB, and I was pretty sure I could see the top half the shuttle (having looked at the maps previously gave me a pretty good idea of where to look).
Then motorcycle cops started up the bridge, chasing everyone off. However, it was slow going. The launch was now due in about twelve minutes, and every single car the came to yielded arguments and delays. No one wanted to leave at that point, they'd just be there a few minutes, watch the launch, then clear the bridge. So the cops made very slow progress. When they'd get close to me, I'd just walk down a a couple more cars. They didn't seem interested in the pedestrians anyway, they just wanted the cars gone. But there was nowhere for the cars to go, the exit from the bridge was completely clogged at this point.
There was a scheduled hold at T-9 minutes, and everything but one was "go": there was a range safety issue of some sort. They extended the hold briefly, then decided they'd proceed to the T-5 hold and see if the issue was sorted out by then. I wasn't too worried, if the launch was delayed some, I'd still have time to get back to the airport and make my flight, or perhaps the next one. They got to the T-5 hold, and the range safety issue still hadn't been resolved, so they kept holding. But then someone on the radio mentioned that the launch window would expire in one minutes, forty seconds! What? If they can't fix this mysterious problem in 90 more seconds, they have to give up? Gaak! Time kept ticking away, but the problem wasn't fixed. They really didn't want to bump to another day, this launch had already been delayed for months, there was a lot of upcoming other launch activity, and they were reluctant to put another cryo cycle on the tanks. They were really motivated to make this launch date if they could. When they had a few seconds to go, they finally got the go-ahead to continue the countdown and launch.
The rest of the countdown proceeded smoothly, the various stations all called in "go" status, and Discovery made its launch. I had correctly identified the little white pip that was the shuttle's external fuel tank, so I was looking at the right spot when it went up. In a couple of seconds, the flames cleared the trees, and it rose silently into the sky, leaving an enormous column of burnt liquid and solid fuel. A few seconds later, I could hear the roar as it continued to climb.
The radio continued to give me the ascent status, when it reached max-Q, when it went supersonic, when it had enough speed to glide back to KSC, etc. I had a camera with me, but I'd taken NASA's advice to heart and ignored it for the launch itself. But as it got farther away, I snapped a couple of pictures. I figured other people (like shadowcaptain) would have plenty of pictures, but I wanted a couple "no really - I was there" ones.
The cops continued to advance along the bridge, chasing people off, so I headed on down the bridge, away from my car, to avoid annoying them. When I got to the other side, I waited for most of the cops to disperse before heading back across the bridge to retrieve my car. There were a few cops left, here and there, but they didn't bother me as I walked back across.
I got back in my car, crossed the bridge, turned around, recrossed the bridge, and headed back towards the airport. There were several sections of stopped traffic, but the toll was suspended for the launch, which saved a lot of delay, and I was able to get back to the airport in plenty of time to drop off the car, get my boarding pass, and get through security.
I had done it! I took an enormous gamble on a last-minute, whirlwind trip to maybe, just maybe catch a shuttle launch. And it paid off! I got to see the launch from a near-ideal location (mere blocks from where I grew up), on a gorgeous day, without spending a whole lot of time, money or energy. Wow.