Four women. Four Ph.D. projects* on hold. One car (minus one bumper). One space shuttle orbiter on its final mission. Memories to inspire for a lifetime.
Welcome to my trip to the Kennedy Space Center to see the launch of Discovery for STS-133.
I hadn’t even tried to get into the official NASA Tweetup since I had personal commitments at the time of the original scheduled launch in early November. Just a couple of weeks ago, however, I realized I had a mostly free weekend for the launch attempt after the much publicized external tank fixes.
For once, one of my last minute madcap schemes came together, mostly thanks to @JahdavusRex who had some extra visitor center tickets, and my fellow University of Virginia Astronomy grad students who helped pull this trip together: Gail Zasowski, Joleen Carlberg, and Genevieve de Messieres.
Despite making a wrong turn into a restricted area, overwhelming traffic into and out of the Visitor Center, and nearly running out of gas in said traffic, it was a perfect launch trip.
We marveled at Hubble 3D IMAX, knowing full well what a boon it has been to many of our collaborators. After leaving the theatre, we saw a display about Glimpse/360, a project with the Spitzer Space Telescope on which Gail is a co-investigator.
When I said that our Ph.D. projects were on hold, I was exaggerating a bit. Astronomy was never far from our minds, given the setting, and you could occasionally hear the clack-clack-clack of laptop keys from the backseat of my car as Joleen and Genevieve worked on writing their thesis chapters.
From L to R, including mascots: Joleen, Gail, Buzznaut, me, Meteor Shower, and Genevieve.
We sat on the lawn by the Rocket Garden among hundreds of spectators, joining what was surely thousands in total in the area to witness the marvel of human ingenuity that is the space shuttle program.
It isn’t perfect, and it is quite a complicated machine, but the shuttle has allowed some 355 humans to explore the universe just outside of the comforting protection of our home planet. It has launched several space telescopes important to astronomical discovery and our careers, and pushed scientific experiments further into the microgravity realm.
With the shuttle, many nations have come together to build the International Space Station, which has been continuously occupied for over 10 years! Ladies and gentlemen, we have people living in space!
The last minutes before six astronauts bounded beyond Earth’s atmosphere were exciting and tense. We rose to our feet and started our video cameras rolling as the minutes counted down, and shuttle staff raced to fix a ground computer problem with just a minute or two to spare in the launch window.
Finally we had liftoff, with both an exhilarating view on the jumbo-tron showing NASA-TV, and the fiery splendor of Discovery rising above the trees and buildings, shaking the ground underneath our feet. We cheered, we cried, we jumped up and down and hugged as we celebrated one of the glorious feats that humans can achieve.
The universe may be vast, as any of us could tell you, and our actual forays into it minuscule. And yet, it is endlessly inspiring as humanity continues to take its baby steps out into the cosmos.
I asked my fellow travelers for their impressions of spaceflight as we sat watching the ocean, one of mankind’s other final frontiers. (With our laptops, as usual.) Genevieve appreciates the space program for enabling some of the great instruments that we use in our research. She also noted, “It has turned my perspective a bit outward, both with manned and unmanned missions, like when we get back stunning pictures from Mars and Saturn.”
Gail pointed out, “If we can actually go to these places beyond our planet, that makes it more real for us who study the universe, and for everyone who thinks about space.” She and I still want to be astronauts, though we mourn the lack of good eyesight.
Joleen piped in, “I just think it’s really cool!” to which Gail replied, “Joleen likes making things go boom.” For just that reason, we build and launch model rockets with our elementary school astronomy club, Dark Skies, Bright Kids. You get quite a bit of attention making things go boom! “But look over here at this amazing science as well…” I’m sure NASA’s education and public outreach divisions have taken advantage of that over the decades.
Gail and UVa alum Ian Czekala launch rockets with elementary school children in Virginia.
Remember, there are just two more launches left, so get out to the Cape in April and/or June to see the wonder of human ingenuity and exploration for yourself!
As space-fanatic/musician @CraftLass stated ever-so-eloquently last night, here’s to a good mission and safe return for the crew of Discovery.
CraftLass teaches Buzznaut and Meteor Shower of Dark Skies, Bright Kids a thing or two about music.
Image credits: Me and my cell phone, except for the model rocket launch, which is courtesy of Dark Skies, Bright Kids.