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Author Topic:   Spectators experience at space shuttle launches

Posts: 21
From: Los Angeles, CA, USA
Registered: Apr 2013

posted 04-22-2013 04:06 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for spacescribe     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
When I visit KSC next month, not sure if I'll get to see a rocket launch. I'd especially like to see what the atmosphere on the ground on the day of the launch was like for visitors, and also see the astronauts head to the pad. Are there any documentaries that spring to anyone's mind?

Robert Pearlman

Posts: 27328
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 04-23-2013 01:12 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The IMAX film, "The Dream is Alive" has some good shots of the spectator experience during the early space shuttle program. Similarly, the IMAX film "Hubble 3D" includes both spectator shots and the crew's walkout to the Astrovan to depart for the pad.

Motherboard TV's "Space Shuttle Parking Lot: Tailgating the Rocket Launch," which you can watch online here, may also be of interest.

To those who've witnessed it first-hand, it's the spectacle of a lifetime. People come to Florida from as far away as Michigan or Alaska or England or Italy, arriving in droves by car and motor home, toting binoculars, blankets and American flags. They line up along a worn river bank in the towns near the launch pad on Cape Canaveral, waiting for days, then nail-biting hours, to see a group of people embark on a completely different kind of journey, this one powered by rockets that do zero to 17,000 mph in 8.5 minutes. To the fans, this is the Super Bowl, NASCAR, the World Cup and Independence Day rolled into one. The astronauts strapped into the massive Space Transportation System aren't just rocket jockeys. They're rock stars.

Last year, when Space Shuttle Endeavor was scheduled to leave the Earth at night for the last time on its way to the space station, producer David Feinberg and I joined those throngs of space pilgrims. Inspired in part by films like "The Right Stuff" and the underground '80s documentary "Heavy Metal Parking Lot," we traversed Cape Canaveral and nearby Titusville in an attempt to capture the launch from multiple angles. We met some of the folks who work at NASA, but our focus was on the fans, who had come from far and wide for a grueling space shuttle tailgate party.


Posts: 1624
From: Worcestershire, England, UK.
Registered: Apr 2008

posted 04-23-2013 01:19 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Tykeanaut   Click Here to Email Tykeanaut     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
After seeing all those close-up "slo-mo" shots of launches on the TV I have to confess that I was a little disappointed when I saw a shuttle launch in 2000.


Posts: 771
From: Olympia, WA, USA
Registered: Sep 2011

posted 04-23-2013 01:54 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for p51   Click Here to Email p51     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
If you were looking for a very common spectator experience, have all the people from all over showing up (many at great expense and distance), a party atmosphere where everyone is stoked. You've fought hard to get a spot along the road, way away from the pad, and have waited many hours while fighting bugs and watching out for alligators.

And then the launch gets scrubbed.

You'll have rarely seen people more disappointed and angry in such a case. For many, that was the only chance they ever had. I went down to see a few shuttle launches and ALL of them were scrubbed. One was scrubbed at 9 seconds. The only launches I've ever seen were at great distances, well over 100 miles, and you only see a dot.

No offense, but I have zero empathy for anyone who got to see one relatively close to a shuttle going up then complained about it wasn't as 'cool' as they thought. I've always responded to them, "Yeah? How cool do you think it would have been if the shuttle stayed on the [bleep]ing pad?"

Jay Chladek

Posts: 2211
From: Bellevue, NE, USA
Registered: Aug 2007

posted 04-23-2013 11:51 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Jay Chladek   Click Here to Email Jay Chladek     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
An actual launch will never quite look the same as film or television (slow motion or not). Different senses take in a launch when you are watching it in person. If you can track the vehicle going up for a good distance, it puts into a very good perspective just how quickly the spacecraft accelerates from a dead stop on a launch pad to a point where it goes out of sight about five minutes later. At night, you can see it for much longer as it dips over the horizon. Even if you watch such a launch from a distance, you can still get that sense of how fast it goes.

For me, the three shuttle launches I witnessed will stay in my mind forever. Granted I was the closest a member of the public could get for all of them (the press site), but it did not disappoint at all. Seeing something that big going uphill on two of the biggest and brightest colums of flame one could ever see (with a brilliant yellow glow that film has yet to accurately convey since the brightness of it tends to wash it out in photographs) made the experience worth it. Sure, I've seen the best day launch I could (STS-121) and a night launch (STS-131). But even the final launch of STS-135 still left me in awe even though the vehicle disappeared from sight when it went up through the cloud layer.

I would add the IMAX film "Hail Columbia" to my shuttle launch experience list because they practically played the launch of STS-1 at full volume. Sure, their cameras were pretty close to the pad, but you get a sense of the assault on the eardrums if you crank the volume. Plus, the movie does showcase some of the crowd's reaction as well. I remember seeing this film in the IMAX Theater at Space Camp in 1985 and the seats literally SHOOK during liftoff.


Posts: 21
From: Los Angeles, CA, USA
Registered: Apr 2013

posted 04-26-2013 12:30 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for spacescribe     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
What a divergent range of experiences. Thanks for sharing.


Posts: 17
Registered: Jun 2011

posted 04-26-2013 01:33 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for psloss   Click Here to Email psloss     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I saw several launch attempts from the causeway in the 1999-2001 period; a few scrubs, but I was lucky enough to see six launches (96, 93, 106, 104, 105). I didn't see any of the last launches in person, but I sense in the videos a little bit of a 'last chance to see this' feel that I didn't think there was ~15 years ago.

I don't know that the "tailgating" atmosphere changed too much, other than the varying ability to bring food and drink to one's viewing's a little different waiting for a launch attempt (or a couple of landings I saw out in California even farther back) than a going to a game, but there's definitely anticipation of experiencing something memorable.

Even from the causeway (which isn't nearly as close to the LC-39 launch pads as the KSC Press Site), I always thought it was more of an "experience" than watching close-ups on TV. TV didn't do the sound and the feeling justice. (Not that it's necessarily trying to.) And as noted by others TV had a harder time with brightness, color, and contrast, even with the more recent improvements.


Posts: 149
From: Athens, GA
Registered: Feb 2007

posted 04-26-2013 01:48 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for tfrielin   Click Here to Email tfrielin     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
My account of our experience at the last launch, nearly two years ago now:

After turning down our previous invitation to the penultimate launch, I was informed by the NASA History Office guy that we had been "recycled" for the last launch, but he warned that the guest list exceeded the slots available. So it was a pleasant surprise when three weeks before launch day we got the invite in the mail.

That was far too late to get a hotel room anywhere near Kennedy Space Center but fortunately we had already planned to go to the farm in Ocala to celebrate Barbara's Dad's 90th birthday so we hung out there afterwards, waiting for the launch. Mapquest informed me that if we took I-75 to the Florida Turnpike then on to State Road 528, it would take us two hours and twenty minutes to get to the Visitor Complex where we had to register and then board a bus to the viewing site. Okay, we're there, not a problem.

But the day before launch, the weather turned cloudy and rainy all over Central Florida. When we went to bed that night they were giving only a thirty percent chance of a launch and since the launch window was only ten minutes, we were pretty much resigned to missing our chance to see it, but we decided that we owed it to ourselves to at least drive over until they called it off.

So we're up at 4:30 and on the road by 6 a.m. and the skies were actually looking better the longer we drove with big patches of blue breaking up the cloud cover. Plus the predicted traffic didn't seem to be a problem — we zipped down 75, got on the Florida Parkway and paid all those damned tolls and passed the Orlando Airport exit with no problem.

But it was too good to be true. When we got on SR 528, things backed up and we crawled our way for the rest of the trip. We now know what a million person traffic jam looks like — saturation.

We knew the last bus left the Visitor Complex one hour before liftoff (leaving at 10:30 a.m.) so we started to get worried that we'd go all this way just to miss it. But we had no option but to limp along and keep our fingers crossed. The Mapquest two hour, plus trip was now over four hours.

When we finally got to the security checkpoint on the causeway we saw what was the last of the holdups — lots of people who didn't have permits to get on the Kennedy Space Center grounds were driving up to the checkpoint where they were challenged by the cops. The guy in front of us whipped out some official looking document to the cop who unfolded it and he then told the guy to pull out of the line into a parking lot where they shunted all the unauthorized people so they could turn them around. We then pulled up with our Official NASA Permit prominently displayed on the windshield and the cop actually said "thank you — have a nice day", waved us through and for a moment we felt like we might really be VIPs.

But the feeling was fleeting as it was now about 10:15 and the sign told us the Visitor Complex was six and a half miles away. So I floored it, we parked the car, grabbed camera and binoculars and hoofed to to the registration desk. When we got there they were already taking down the ropes and generally packing it up. But we got registered, got our bus pass and visitor's pass and we were one of maybe the last of ten or twelve people who got loaded on to the last bus. Whew! Since there were extra spaces on that last bus NASA let employees take the empty seats — the lady sitting across from us said many people simply didn't make it as they were still caught up in that epic traffic jam. Needless to say, we were very lucky. Or that it was just fate that we were going to see that last launch no matter what.

Although the weather for the launch was still only a thirty percent chance the skies looked a lot better there at the launch site — even more patches of blue. Once we were on the bus to the viewing site for the first time I allowed myself to think that maybe we'd see Atlantis go after all.

The bus took us to the Saturn V Center and the Banana Creek viewing site about three and a half to four miles away from Pad 39A — same site where we saw Discovery go three years previously. We disembarked and made it through the gift shop (a nice mercenary touch — they had you enter and exit through the gift shop) and since it was about T-minus 20 minutes, we just went out to the bleacher area. Naturally by this time it was already filled so we made our way down to near the spot where we saw Discovery go from the last time we were there.

After the stress and strain of the traffic jam it was a great feeling to be there especially since now we only had to endure fifteen minutes or so of the July Florida sun to see Atlantis go.

Back in 1981 and afterwards, I photographed the first and subsequent launches with my old trusty Pentax Spotmatic with that old 600mm Soligor lens. That antique equipment had long since bit the dust so recently I got an old Spotmatic on eBay and a 135mm lens to go with it. Well, right before we left to go down to the launch I discovered that I couldn't get the battery compartment open to replace the old battery for the exposure meter. So I knew I'd just have to guess at the shutter speed and aperture setting. No big deal, as I just really wanted to see the launch, not so much to photograph it. There was a young lady standing next to me with her fancy damned digital camera so I asked her what her meter was reading for her film speed. She looked at me funny when I said "film" so I said just tell me what your camera is saying for your current ISO. She said ISO 320, Shutter 1/250th and aperture of f12. So armed with that information I guessed that a 1/250 sec shutter speed and an f 11 aperture would do the trick.

She then asked me where the shuttle would take off from so I pointed out Pad 39A in the distance — obviously this was her first launch. So I gave her my only sage advice — don't try to take too many pictures or you'll miss the launch — it goes fast and today it will disappear into that cloud cover and we we won't see SRB separation.

So now after the travails of us getting to here over I'm thinking we will see her go — thirty years ago we were here for STS-1 and now we close the circle with this last shuttle launch. The last T-9 minute hold passed, and we counted down for the last launch. We could hear the flight controllers on the PA speakers and they went around the horn for the last go-for-launch-status. It was all Go.

At about T-4 minutes we all sang the National Anthem led by a NASA employee and then the thousands of us focused on Pad 39A across the water and Florida scrub knowing we were Go for launch.

Then, just as we thought we were there, the launch team called that last thirty second hold — we couldn't hear exactly on the speakers but something didn't retract all the way, at least according to one of the launch controllers consoles. Except for a couple of crying babies, you could have heard a pin drop at that moment — everyone was silent.

But the PA said they would use a camera to verify the retraction (of the Beanie Cap as it turned out) and once that was verified they re-cycled the count and re-started. We all went wild.

I decided I wouldn't use the binoculars so just watched and listened for the go-for-main-engine-start call. The SSMEs lit off, sending up the huge plume of steam from underneath the pad, but even then I told myself this one was not a Go until I saw the SRBs ignite. From our vantage point the launch tower blocked our line of sight for the Shuttle stack where it sat on the pad but I could then see that intense yellow glow of the SRB ignition piercing through the launch tower and at last I knew Atlantis was on her way.

She cleared the tower and came into full view — a magnificent sight. We thought as some others also commented on she rose more slowly than other shuttles. This is where I snapped a couple of pictures — they seem a little blurred but they capture the moment and the 135mm lens re-creates the view we saw with the naked eye from that distance.

But what the film doesn't capture is the deep rich yellow/gold/orange of the SRB plumes — that was very beautiful and I think it may have been the prettiest launch of all I've seen.

Belatedly the sound hit us — not as intense at this site as I guess the business end of all that thrust was not directly pointed our way, but impressive nevertheless. She made her roll, arched out over the Atlantic and climbed into the cloud deck after about forty five seconds and disappeared. It was amazing.

So we did it — we were there in April 1981 for STS-1 and we were there for STS-135 thirty years later — closed the circle.

I was not sad to see the last shuttle go, even though on the way back on the bus we passed the VAB. There, parked on a pedestal was one of the Mobile Launcher Platforms and next to it was one of the crawlers — both recycled from the Apollo days and I suppose this is where they will remain now that there are no more Saturns or shuttles to take out to Launch Complex 39A. Would they ever be started up again? Or just sit there to rust in the Florida salt air?

I could also see the empty space where Pad 39B had already been dismantled, only the lightning protection towers left to mark the spot.

Perhaps saddest of all was the launch tower that NASA built for the now canceled Ares launch vehicle that stood there at the VAB. I read on the web where some KSC employee said ruefully that he hoped his boss would let him climb to the top of it before it got turned into a very expensive artificial reef.

The shuttle had a good thirty year run and I'm okay with its retirement. What I'm not okay with is he unnecessary uncertainty that NASA and the U.S. manned spaceflight program now faces after the Administration canceled the Constellation Program last year. At least when Apollo/Saturn was closing down we had the shuttle already in development. Now all we have is uncertainty.

So we went back to get dropped off at the Visitor Complex both to get something to eat and let the traffic ease. We grabbed the last two Budweisers out of the drink case in the cafeteria — a first. I never had the pleasure of a cold Bud after a shuttle launch, particularly welcome on a hot July afternoon. A German accented man asked me where I got the beers, so I pointed, telling him that they were going fast. But I did not offer to share. He eventually found some, so I did not have to feel guilty.

Barbara decided to watch the IMAX Hubble 3D movie. But I decided just to walk the visitor center grounds knowing that probably there would never again be this many people there at any one time ever again and that if I ever see the place again, it will not be the same.


Posts: 508
From: Staten Island, New York USA
Registered: Nov 2007

posted 04-26-2013 02:03 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for onesmallstep   Click Here to Email onesmallstep     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I echo each of the above posters on the experiences they had witnessing a shuttle launch. I had the opportunity to attend three: STS-9/Columbia in 1983, STS-26/Discovery in 1988 and STS-82/Discovery in 1997. Each memorable in its own way, and viewed from different locations: STS-9 from the KSC press site; STS-26 from the NASA causeway; and STS-82 from Titusville.

What stands out from all launches is the sheer power of the vehicle as seen when all engines light up, plus those two roman candles called SRBs. And the acceleration is impressive, almost like a race car compared to the Saturn V. You also get the full effect when the sound and vibration hits you seconds after the fact. The night launch of STS-82 was also spectacular, turning night into day in an instant.

And for sheer emotion, nothing could beat STS-26, where the crowd held their breath until after commander Rick Hauck called out "Roger, go at throttle up.." and the shuttle continued safely on its way, to sounds of "Go, go!" - and cowbells!


Posts: 1275
From: New York
Registered: Nov 2000

posted 04-26-2013 08:39 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Tom   Click Here to Email Tom     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I've been lucky enough to have witnessed 11 space shuttle launches from various locations of the Kennedy Space Center. They range from the first test flights through the post-Columbia missions.
  • STS-3 NASA Causeway
  • STS-5 Titusville
  • STS-7 NASA Causeway
  • 51C Press Site
  • 51G Press Site
  • 61B Press Site
  • STS-26 NASA Causeway
  • STS-63 Press Site
  • STS-85 Press Site
  • STS-93 Press Site
  • STS-118 Titusville
Witnessing a shuttle launch from the KSC area is an event that one never forgets. Without a doubt, those viewed from the press site some 3 miles away were unique experiences... especially at night. The brightness of the flames from the solid rocket boosters is unbelievable.

Someone in an earlier post indicated that the colors generated at liftoff could not be duplicated on film... I agree. The best way I could describe it was an "orangey-goldish torch." Add to that the "wave of sound" that hits you just seconds after lift-off. It was hard for me to experience them without tears coming to my eyes.


Posts: 829
Registered: Apr 2008

posted 04-26-2013 10:06 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for 328KF   Click Here to Email 328KF     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I've had the opportunity to see a good number of launches, and a good number of scrubs in the process. I recall that every time they scrubbed we were able to make it back down for the eventual launch.

STS-29 was very memorable because it was my first from the causeway, and at the end of the mission I made it out to Edwards for the landing too. The crew came out and talked to the crowd for awhile, and Discovery towed right in front of us later in the day. STS-30 a larger group of us watched from the causeway, as we did STS-31 with Hubble. I had met the STS-37 at Baltimore's airport as they were leaving from training at Goddard, so felt more closely connected to the crew for that launch.

STS-40 was my first launch from the VIP site and WHAT a difference! It was loud and visually stunning, and there were a number of astronauts and even cosmonauts floating around the site. I think STS-44 was the best of all...they turned out all of the lights at the VIP site at T-9, and with the searchlights focused on the shuttle 3 miles away I had the eerie feeling those guys must have had before an atom bomb test in the '50's. When Atlantis lifted off, it climbed through a greenish haze layer before popping out and becoming a second sunrise.

Those boosters are incredibly bright, and I always remember a distinctly more glaring orange than yellow as the photos show. Just like looking at a rising sun on the horizon. I took a great video of that launch, but was really let down the first time I viewed it. I remember saying, "But that's not anything like what it really looked like!" The brilliance, the colors, and the details are so much more vivid with the eyeball, no picture can truly capture it.

STS-45 was memorable because I had my whole family down there at the VIP site, including my grandmother who was in her mid-90's at the time. She was born in 1908, just 5 years after the Wright Brothers flew the first powered aircraft, and now got to see the greatest airplane ever built fly into space.

I made two quick trips down to Titusville to see the scrub and night launch of STS-56. While not up close, you really can't go wrong with a night shot. When the SRB's are tumbling away spitting sparks out, the beach crowds and VIP's all have the same vantage point.

STS-91 from the causeway was my first one in several years, and my 9 year old son got to see his first shuttle launch, the last mission to Mir.

And that was it until STS-135. Being the last one, I had to see it. My brother flew a NASA contactor down for it, and I airlined in and met them the night before. We staked out in Titusville around 3AM with thousands of other people and got to see the last one go. Atlantis climbed silently from our perspective, but the crowds were cheering as loud as any football game. I set the camera on a timer and got a shot of us both with the orbiter rising up between us.

I plan to be there the next time the US launches astronauts from our own soil, and to see the monster SLS if and when it ever flies...and of course, there's a rocketplane getting ready to fly in Mojave that has my interest as well.

All times are CT (US)

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