My trip to see the final Discovery space shuttle launch

TechRepublic contributor Justin James shares details, photos, and even a video of his family's trip to see the final launch of the Discovery space shuttle. He also offers travel tips for anyone who goes to one of the last space shuttle launches.

Like many folks who grew up to be geeks, I have loved rockets and space since I was a little boy. When I was about six, I sent a rocket design to NASA, and I still have the polite letter they sent me back. By age ten, I had flown countless model rockets. The very first application I "wrote" was a BASIC type-in on a Wang to calculate the stability of those model rockets. And of course, I wanted to be an astronaut.

For many years, the space shuttle was going up so frequently that people thought they would have the opportunity to see a launch at some point in the future. However, shuttle missions are coming to an end. Through a stroke of good luck and good friendship, I had to chance to not only see the Discovery space shuttle's final launch (STS-133 mission) on February 24, 2011, but to take my three-year-old son Jarrett (who is already as nuts about rockets as I am) and my wife Chelsea with me as well. I want to share our adventure with the TechRepublic community.

Obtaining tickets

Last year, my friend BJ and I were trying to figure out how to get to see the shuttle launch scheduled for November, but the timing didn't work out. NASA ended up scrubbing that mission. Tickets for the last couple of launches have been available only on a lottery basis due to the high demand. BJ and I both put our names in the hat with low expectations. In the meantime, my son was becoming more and more obsessed with space. He would demand nearly daily that we watch launch videos on the NASA website. (This launch video is his favorite.) He has worn out his Halloween astronaut costume because he still wears it to stores and around the house all the time.

A few weeks before the Discovery launch, BJ called and let me know that he won the lottery, and was guaranteed four tickets. BJ offered me two tickets so that Jarrett could come along. Shuttle missions get pushed back or even scrubbed all the time, and the last thing I wanted to do was disappoint Jarrett. As far as he knew, we were going to the rocket museum; this was true, since Kennedy Space Center (KSC) has a lot of exhibits. Jarrett had no idea that we were going to see something truly special.

Traveling to Florida

BJ went to Florida the day before I did to secure the tickets. Before I left, my wife asked me one last time if I was sure that half a week with Jarrett all by myself was okay. I had no problem with it, and I wanted to give her some time away from "the boys," especially since she is now nearly six months pregnant with our little girl. She could definitely use some alone time. But when I was nearly two hours into my drive to Florida, BJ called me and said they had extra tickets available. Chelsea was thrilled, and my mother drove her to catch up with me, and we continued the drive to Florida. We eventually met BJ and his girlfriend Jill and had a nice meal and got some rest.

Making it to the KSC

The strange thing about the KSC tickets was that the parking permits said that we needed to be there by 9:30 AM at the latest, but the tickets said 9:30 AM at the earliest (Figure A). Figure A

Front of one of my KSC tickets
Figure B

Back of my KSC tickets

We weren't sure about the traffic, so we left the hotel in Orlando at 7:00 AM. (Orlando was close as we could get to the KSC without paying through the nose.) The trip was short and easy (I recommend highway 528 if you come from Orlando -- it was a very smooth ride), and the KSC staff did an outstanding job of getting people to the right spot at the right time. It seemed like the parking permits were staggered in the arrival times to ensure smooth sailing for everyone. Likewise, security was a breeze. But past security, it turned into a total logjam that took about 30 minutes to get through. Meanwhile, every tourist wanted to take pictures of Jarrett since he wore his astronaut costume, despite the hot Florida weather.

Visiting the KSC

Our first stop at the KSC was the "rocket garden," (Figure C) and Jarrett had a blast with the Gemini capsule model that he could crawl in (Figure D), and the playground they had set up. The food and drinks were fairly reasonably priced (for museum/theme park fare), and they allowed you to bring your own food and drinks as well, which was a welcome surprise. Unfortunately, many of the best exhibits are only available on the bus tour, which does not run on a launch day. There were some excellent exhibits, and Jarrett really loved the mockup shuttle that you could walk through. BJ and Jill report that the "Space Shuttle Launch Experience" was excellent as well. Figure C

The rocket garden at the KSC
Figure D

"Astronaut" Jarrett in the Gemini mockup

Getting a good spot to view the launch

Between the sun and our son, Chelsea and I were pretty worn down by about 1:30 or 2:00, and we headed out to the main viewing area where they had a big screen set up to follow the progress of the preparation. By this time, many of the communications were being played over loudspeakers, and a former astronaut came out to answer some questions and to talk about what was happening. It was pretty interesting, but I just wanted a nap.

While the viewing area at the KSC is decent, it does not offer an unobstructed view of the space shuttle launch pad. You do not get to see the initial liftoff. To see that, you need to be on the causeway, and the tickets for that were very limited. This was a bit of a disappointment, as you can imagine. Fortunately, Chelsea saved the day by overhearing that there were tickets to the causeway on sale. We called BJ, and he jumped in line. Then he called us and said we needed to be there to get tickets. We packed everything up and dragged an exhausted Jarrett across the KSC to get in line. We got there just in time! They were selling tickets to the causeway (about $20 each), and they were immediately ferrying people over via bus. We were so happy to have this opportunity!

Figure E

Jarrett waiting for liftoff when we were still at the KSC. Beyond the fence is the launch pad, which is totally hidden by trees.

Counting down and witnessing the launch

By the time we arrived, the countdown was at about 50 minutes and holding. They had some food tents set up, and we snagged some grub. The causeway was great -- we got to sit in the shade of the bus, but where we were, a small island blocked the view. BJ scouted things out, and we found a place to see it perfectly just a few hundred feet down.

While the countdown had gone perfectly so far and weather conditions were ideal, near the end of the countdown, it started to look like the launch wasn't going to happen. The range safety officer called "no go" on the mission with a hold to see if they could save the mission. You should have heard the cheer that went up when they reported a "go" on the mission again! Even still, things were tense. Missions have been scrubbed with two minutes left on the clock. Around T minus three minutes, we shifted to the clear viewing area BJ found and waited. Jarrett was getting antsy, so I put him on my shoulders. He still wasn't happy.

The countdown for the final 30 seconds wasn't announced, so it was a bit of a surprise when we suddenly started seeing the cloud of smoke and fire on the launch pad. The causeway is about six miles away from the launch pad, so it takes time for the noise to arrive. The crowd went nuts as liftoff occurred, and I started weeping; this was a dream of 30 years coming together at just about the last chance possible for it to happen. Jarrett went bonkers.

Here is a video my wife took of the Discovery launch (liftoff begins at about the minute mark). Chelsea was so excited that she missed the first part of the launch. The look on Jarrett's face made the entire trip worth it.

I didn't even think to take photos until the space shuttle was quite a good ways up.

Figure F

The Discovery taking off on its final mission.
Figure G

The view from the causeway after the launch. It was a much better vantage point than at the KSC.

Leaving the launch site

A few minutes after the launch, we all got on the bus. It took about an hour to get back to the KSC. We spent a few minutes resting up, and then we headed out to the car. Again the KSC staff did a great job wrangling traffic. Unfortunately, the local highways were not prepared for the near-record crowds, and it took us about six hours to go the 45 miles back to Orlando. We stopped for dinner, and when we got back to the highway, we still hit the traffic. I will say this, though: The crowd was the nicest group of people I've ever been around, even in the middle of soul crushing traffic.

Heading home

Chelsea needed to be back to work on Saturday, and we were too beat to try squeezing in the KSC bus tour Friday before heading home. All the same, we had the best time imaginable. All of the travel, the challenges of dealing with a young child and a pregnant wife, and money spent were well worth it for the experience.

Upcoming space shuttle launches

Registration for tickets to see the space shuttle launches of STS-134 Endeavour (targeted for April 19, 2011) and STS-135 Atlantis (targeted for June 28, 2011) is not yet open. Even if you don't get a ticket for either launch in the lottery (which is for four tickets), I recommend that you go to the site the day before the scheduled launch and see if any tickets are available.

If you do plan to go to a space shuttle launch, here are my tips:

  • The tickets are good for the entire mission (again, it can be delayed up to two weeks before it is aborted).
  • Be prepared to stay longer in case the mission is delayed. There is a 10 minute window per launch day, and they try for about two weeks before aborting the mission.
  • Book hotel rooms far in advance.
  • Daytona Beach and Orlando are about 45 minutes away from the KSC. You might as well make a full vacation out of the trip if you can.
  • Ask staff if there are upgrades available to get a better view.
  • Be prepared to show up early and kill quite a few hours. Bring a book, because the KSC is a quick tour, but the launch can be in the afternoon or evening. Bring lots of food and water, too.
  • You are allowed to bring in chairs, cameras, and other equipment. You should bring a blanket at the very least, but a chair is even better. Just remember, anything you bring in will be hauled around all day.
  • The tickets are good for another day in the park, so go the day before or after and take the bus tour.
  • Bring a camera.
  • Focus on watching, not recording, the launch.
  • Bring your child or any young family member or friend. A kid will never forget seeing a space shuttle launch.

I hope that you get to take part in this amazing experience like I had the chance to do!


More about the Discovery space shuttle