The smoke billows out and up and the orange tip seen above the tree line rises as the world’s only reusable space plane lifts off of its launch pad on the Florida peninsula. For the audience 2miles away the departure from the pad is silent, the light reflected from the most complex machine humanity has ever built reaches eyes minutes before the sound would.
That comes later, as we lift our eyes to the sky and the orange and white shape arches over our heads the pressure wave from the millions of pounds of thrust reaches our ears, and beneath our feet the viewing platform shakes, violently, we witness nothing less than history in the making, another successful launch of NASA’s oldest operational Space Shuttle, Discovery.
That was the scene on 4 July, but that wasn’t quite how it worked out for me. I had to get back to Europe on 3 July and on 1 July, as we waited for the first attempt to launch, I had some other more pressing problems.
“Stop!! Do you have an escort?!”
“Excuse me?”, I innocently asked as I stopped at the rudimentary checkpoint after wolfing down a tuna wrap, chocolate cake and “Rockstar: party like one” energy drink at the KSC cafeteria.
The intense sunlight bore down on us, me, and the questioning machine gun toting security guard; behind us the vehicle assembly building (VAB) where Saturn V’s were built and the Shuttle’s constituent parts are mated and in front, the low rise almost pre-fab like media center.
Overhead the NASA Huey buzzed the Center at maybe a 100ft, circling the VAB, and over the personnel address system a familiar squawk of a human voice echoed out. *** Cheney, US vice president was in the Center, cue machine guns.
This was going to be a problem, no escort, no media center, no stories filed, and it was T-3hr to launch on a humid 1 July – not to mention the imminent England vs Portugal world cup match; where the UK media (mostly BBC) had already ensured they had got the best seats and that one of the two televisions was tuned to the right channel - eh, that's the one with the football.
Meanwhile, for me outside in the unforgiving sunshine, it was a stand off. They wouldn’t let me in without a red badged escort and I wasn’t prepared to run for it. I’m allergic to 7.62mm bullets.
So near, yet so far from the ranks of cameras lined up under tarpaulin covered platforms, in front of them the many shapes and sizes of OB trucks, that’s outside broadcast unit to you non-media people.
These all stood outside the media center facing the VAB and in the distance launch complex 39.
The day before I had sat in the ‘news dome’, not that its much of a dome, and participated in press briefings, the first of which was with NASA administrator Mike Griffin and his associate administrator for space operations Bill Gerstenmaier.
Getting in two questions I got answers worthy of stories, which can be found here and in a future issue of Flight.
Another briefing that day saw Scott Horowitz, and his constellation programme and launch vehicle chiefs, Jeff Hanley and Steve Cook (seen below, left to right, in the red t-shirt NASA associate administrator for exploration systems Scott Horowitz, looking away and in a green t-shirt is Constellation programme manager Jeff Hanley and in the yellow t-shirt exploration launch vehicles director Steve Cook).
These are the guys, for now, responsible for taking NASA back to the Moon by 2020.
“Hello? Is the mike working”, one of the mid-west newspaper reporters tapped into the mike-on-a-stick that we have thrust toward us when we’re selected for a question. The questions ranged from the quite insightful from the likes of spaceflightnow.com through to NBC's and ABC's reporters getting it totally wrong. I waited and got to speak to Hanley and Cook exclusively later on.
Friday was busy for press briefings, and the last would be with the European Space Agency. This was significant because for ESA STS-121 was the first time one of the agency's astronauts would travel to the space station for a long duration, six month, mission. It was significant for the ISS in general as well because it would be the first time the station would have three crew since the departure of Expedition 6 in May 2003, three months after the Shuttle Columbia disaster. Before us sat Daniel Sacotte, ESA's exploration chief (on the left, looking right, in the picture below), and ESA director-general Jean-Jacques Dordain (on the right looking at the camera in the picture).
Looking round the media attendance was notably reduced compared to the NASA briefings earlier. And there were no senior NASA personnel. Neither were there the NASA tv cameras. Despite ESA being second only to NASA in terms of budget amongst the world's space agencies and an ISS partner to boot the US space agency had clearly decided the ESA press briefing wasn't worth its executives time or time on NASA tv. Shame on NASA.
A day later and the guard still wouldn’t let me pass, I couldn’t contact anyone to change the situation either. Yesterday there weren’t any machine guns or paranoia.
I thought of the road kill campaign NASA has running at KSC – the Center is within a natural wildlife reserve, and the alligators and other wildlife get run over every now and then.
Why wasn’t the security guard hunting diluvian lizard? Only today do I get the SWAT treatment, courtesy of the vice president’s visit. Thanks ***!
A car rolled up behind me. One of the machine gun toting guards peered into it. He spoke to one of the occupants and looked back at me, "Hey you, you're OK, he's a senior guy, he says you don't need an escort."
I mumble a thanks and turn to walk up the slope towards the annex where my fellow Brits had already started watching the England vs Portgual match. I hoped it wouldn't end in penalties...