This is a travelogue from a truly unique experience, viewing the launch of a space shuttle up close from the VIP/family seating area, in November 1985.

Due to the good fortune of my parents’ moving into a neighborhood with astronauts and becoming good friends with some of them, we were invited to the first and second launch of Col. Bill McArthur’s shuttle career to date. The first mission, STS-58, was uneventful as far as I’m concerned as we had to leave Florida before they finally got the thing up in the air (due to technical
difficulties).

I decided to put these pages out on the WWW for several reasons:

  • I think they’re pretty cool, and judging from the gatherings in my office around my photo album, others think so too
  • Participating in a launch as a crew guest is a unique experience which I would love to share
  • I’m an unabashed NASA groupie… maybe if you’re not convinced NASA’s great, you might catch a bit of the fever by taking the tour with me.

I will freely and honestly state that NASA’s official photos are infinitely better than mine, so please don’t rob yourself by missing out on their site. It seems from talking to folks, however, that there’s a lot of interest in a ‘personal’ account of the experience. Check out my shuttle index page after you look through my scrapbook for additional NASA links.

November 10th, 1995, Friday

The Kennedy Space Center is a very large complex. Everywhere, the ditches are full of alligators and poisonous snakes; in fact, they have some rather frightening signs posted everywhere stating that the waters are “infested with poisonous snakes.” Today’s the day the fun started… we began the morning with a special tour of NASA. We loaded onto crew buses and took a driving tour of the facilities.

Judy, Mom and Dad loading the bus for the pre-launch tour 11/10/1995

Judy, Mom and Dad loading the bus for the pre-launch tour 11/10/1995

Astronaut M. E. Webber rode on our tour bus into the facility. It's a rather long drive to the launchpads. We first drove out to the three-mile-long landing strip used for the shuttle's touchdown. A landing out there must be a pretty incredible sight! The road out to the launchpad goes past a gigantic eagles' nest, and is surrounded on both sides by ditches that usually have a few alligators lazily swimming around. At least they were on our first visit here, but this time the alligators were no where to be found. But the eagles were there, in their nest.

Astronaut M. E. Webber rode on our tour bus into the facility. It’s a rather long drive to the launchpads. We first drove out to the three-mile-long landing strip used for the shuttle’s touchdown. A landing out there must be a pretty incredible sight!
The road out to the launchpad goes past a gigantic eagles’ nest, and is surrounded on both sides by ditches that usually have a few alligators lazily swimming around. At least they were on our first visit here, but this time the alligators were no where to be found. But the eagles were there, in their nest.

The highlight of the tour was the launchpad. The shuttle Atlantis was already there, of course, on its launchpad. A huge banner proclaiming "Go ATLANTIS" was there at the entrance to the pad.

The highlight of the tour was the launchpad. The shuttle Atlantis was already there, of course, on its launchpad. A huge banner proclaiming “Go ATLANTIS” was there at the entrance to the pad.

The highlight of the tour was the launchpad. The shuttle Atlantis was already there, of course, on its launchpad. A huge banner proclaiming "Go ATLANTIS" was there at the entrance to the pad.

The highlight of the tour was the launchpad. The shuttle Atlantis was already there, of course, on its launchpad. A huge banner proclaiming “Go ATLANTIS” was there at the entrance to the pad.

 There's a real sense of excitement all throughout Kennedy Space Center before a launch -- countdown signs are posted everywhere, and everyone's just stoked for the launch.

There’s a real sense of excitement all throughout Kennedy Space Center before a launch — countdown signs are posted everywhere, and everyone’s just stoked for the launch.

These photographs don't do justice to how overwhelmingly HUGE the shuttle and rocket assembly are. These views show the water tower with its giant pipe leading into the tank in the launch pad. The water tower contains 300,000 gallons of water, which are dumped into the launch pad at ignition as part of the "sound suppression system"; that in fact is what makes the majority of the visible "smoke" at ignition.

These photographs don’t do justice to how overwhelmingly HUGE the shuttle and rocket assembly are. These views show the water tower with its giant pipe leading into the tank in the launch pad. The water tower contains 300,000 gallons of water, which are dumped into the launch pad at ignition as part of the “sound suppression system”; that in fact is what makes the majority of the visible “smoke” at ignition.

The shuttle itself is hidden from view by the gantry still attached over the top of it -- they still were loading in the payload and getting things ready, and had not yet pulled away the service structure.

The shuttle itself is hidden from view by the gantry still attached over the top of it — they still were loading in the payload and getting things ready, and had not yet pulled away the service structure.

There's a giant tunnel coming out from under the launchpad. I'm not sure of the 'technical' name for it, something like "flare reflector", but it's basically a 'fire channel'. When the rockets are ignited, the flames and heat need somewhere to go, and this is one of the paths that it takes.

There’s a giant tunnel coming out from under the launchpad. I’m not sure of the ‘technical’ name for it, something like “flare reflector”, but it’s basically a ‘fire channel’. When the rockets are ignited, the flames and heat need somewhere to go, and this is one of the paths that it takes.

They don't show up well in these shots, but there are several (seven?) lines running from the shuttle assembly down to the ground. You can just barely see them on the far right in the previous photo. They start out at the level where the crew is seated during launch. This is the emergency exit system. If something should happen on the launchpad, the astronauts basically slide down these 1,200-feet long wires in baskets.

They don’t show up well in these shots, but there are several (seven?) lines running from the shuttle assembly down to the ground. You can just barely see them on the far right in the previous photo. They start out at the level where the crew is seated during launch. This is the emergency exit system. If something should happen on the launchpad, the astronauts basically slide down these 1,200-feet long wires in baskets.

What looks like a row of catcher's backstops are actually the 'nets' to stop the slide of the crew members down these lines. After they come to the ground, they are right near the entrance of these safety bunkers built into the ground. An armored personnel vehicle is standing by to take them out of trouble, and a porta-john is there as well... because I'm sure if you had to suddenly evacuate the shuttle on the launch pad, you'd NEED to stop in at the porta-john!

What looks like a row of catcher’s backstops are actually the ‘nets’ to stop the slide of the crew members down these lines. After they come to the ground, they are right near the entrance of these safety bunkers built into the ground. An armored personnel vehicle is standing by to take them out of trouble, and a porta-john is there as well… because I’m sure if you had to suddenly evacuate the shuttle on the launch pad, you’d NEED to stop in at the porta-john!

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NASA events are full of all sorts of traditions and routines. One of those 'traditions' is the night-before-the-launch parties that the spouses of the crew members throw. It's not like they don't already have enough on their minds with their loved ones launching off this planet within 24 hours, with every relative in their family traveling across the country to watch, etc.... but they're a lot of fun! This particular party was held the local Planetarium and Science Museum, which was reserved just for us launch party folks. We watched an Omnimax program called "To Become An Astronaut" (or something like that) which was well done. So who let these four wild-and-crazy people into this party? And they even dress alike! The ones on the edges are the best parents in the galaxy, Mom and Dad Lessa...

NASA events are full of all sorts of traditions and routines. One of those ‘traditions’ is the night-before-the-launch parties that the spouses of the crew members throw. It’s not like they don’t already have enough on their minds with their loved ones launching off this planet within 24 hours, with every relative in their family traveling across the country to watch, etc…. but they’re a lot of fun! This particular party was held the local Planetarium and Science Museum, which was reserved just for us launch party folks. We watched an Omnimax program called “To Become An Astronaut” (or something like that) which was well done.
So who let these four wild-and-crazy people into this party? And they even dress alike! The ones on the edges are the best parents in the galaxy, Mom and Dad Lessa…

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From a mile away, a ghostly light was shining in the distance. One of the people working at the guest check-in area of KSC had said that it looked like a giant angel hanging in the sky, and she was right. The mist was perfect -- huge beams of bright white light arched across the sky to converge upon Atlantis. You could see the light shine past Atlantis and into the low-hanging cloud ceiling as well.

From a mile away, a ghostly light was shining in the distance. One of the people working at the guest check-in area of KSC had said that it looked like a giant angel hanging in the sky, and she was right. The mist was perfect — huge beams of bright white light arched across the sky to converge upon Atlantis. You could see the light shine past Atlantis and into the low-hanging cloud ceiling as well.

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Launch Day, November 11, 1995

The morning dawns quite cold and early... as we had to meet at the bus departure spot at 5:30am to ride out to the launch viewing area. Once there, we pile out of the buses and gather about to cheer on the launch. The shuttle across the water is visible in the dawn, and looks just beautiful. It looks like nothing could go wrong this morning! The weather is great, the shuttle is great, the crew is ready.

The morning dawns quite cold and early… as we had to meet at the bus departure spot at 5:30am to ride out to the launch viewing area. Once there, we pile out of the buses and gather about to cheer on the launch.
The shuttle across the water is visible in the dawn, and looks just beautiful. It looks like nothing could go wrong this morning! The weather is great, the shuttle is great, the crew is ready.

Folks are milling about in front of the countdown clock, which you may have seen before on news coverage of mission launches. It stops and restarts at various times depending upon the various allowed stand-down periods. There are actually several countdowns within the countdown sequence, and different places where the countdown can halt and then resume within a specified time. Throughout, however, they have 'windows' for these periods. Since Atlantis was docking with the Russian space station Mir, their launch window was VERY small.... six minutes and 57 seconds, I believe.

Folks are milling about in front of the countdown clock, which you may have seen before on news coverage of mission launches. It stops and restarts at various times depending upon the various allowed stand-down periods. There are actually several countdowns within the countdown sequence, and different places where the countdown can halt and then resume within a specified time. Throughout, however, they have ‘windows’ for these periods. Since Atlantis was docking with the Russian space station Mir, their launch window was VERY small…. six minutes and 57 seconds, I believe.

Jim Voss, an astronaut, is "working the crowd" this morning. He led us all in a rousing rendition of the wave. Notice the very high-tech monitor in the background... NASA spared no expense on that television!

Jim Voss, an astronaut, is “working the crowd” this morning. He led us all in a rousing rendition of the wave. Notice the very high-tech monitor in the background… NASA spared no expense on that television!

Also, there are actually two launchpads visible across the water. For the longest time I was looking towards the "other" launchpad (visible over just-recently-turned Colonel Voss' shoulder), not the one with Atlantis on it. You're actually fairly distant from the pads, but this is as close as you can get to view it unless you're a crew spouse or NASA control itself. Also, there are actually two launchpads visible across the water. For the longest time I was looking towards the “other” launchpad (visible over just-recently-turned Colonel Voss’ shoulder), not the one with Atlantis on it. You’re actually fairly distant from the pads, but this is as close as you can get to view it unless you’re a crew spouse or NASA control itself.

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NASA has split the viewing stands -- now there is one area for crew guests, where we were, and another for press and officials. Crew guests were identified by our colored badges, and were allowed to go anywhere, including the other stands. The press and officials, however, were not allowed into our area, for security reasons. NASA has a post office stand where you can get a postmarked envelope officially announcing the launch, with a special cancellation, to mail out for souvenirs. I have one myself... I'll get it scanned in the future to display here. All our excitement and preparations ended up for naught... the three TAL (transatlantic abort landing sites) were all closed due to bad weather. NASA will not launch unless they know they've got usable landing areas in the abort path, so the launch was scrubbed for the day at 7:56 am.

NASA has split the viewing stands — now there is one area for crew guests, where we were, and another for press and officials. Crew guests were identified by our colored badges, and were allowed to go anywhere, including the other stands. The press and officials, however, were not allowed into our area, for security reasons.
NASA has a post office stand where you can get a postmarked envelope officially announcing the launch, with a special cancellation, to mail out for souvenirs. I have one myself… I’ll get it scanned in the future to display here.
All our excitement and preparations ended up for naught… the three TAL (transatlantic abort landing sites) were all closed due to bad weather. NASA will not launch unless they know they’ve got usable landing areas in the abort path, so the launch was scrubbed for the day at 7:56 am.

Launch Day #2, November 12, 1995

The day dawns even colder, and earlier... the launch window moved up 45 minutes, and was ten minutes and nine seconds. The morning weather was NOT promising. We're huddled into the stands again... and quickly bought out the concession stand's meager supply of sweatshirts!

The day dawns even colder, and earlier… the launch window moved up 45 minutes, and was ten minutes and nine seconds. The morning weather was NOT promising. We’re huddled into the stands again… and quickly bought out the concession stand’s meager supply of sweatshirts!

Jim Voss is again "working the crowd". One of the crew members is Canadian, so Canadian flags were everywhere, including being used as a cloak by one of the crew guests!

Jim Voss is again “working the crowd”. One of the crew members is Canadian, so Canadian flags were everywhere, including being used as a cloak by one of the crew guests!

We again did the wave, several times.

We again did the wave, several times.

The weather was not promising at all. Thick clouds were hanging over us. We could see behind us that the storm clouds were getting blown away, but over the launch site it was still overcast, and with our small launch window it did not look promising.

The weather was not promising at all. Thick clouds were hanging over us. We could see behind us that the storm clouds were getting blown away, but over the launch site it was still overcast, and with our small launch window it did not look promising.

There’s almost a sense that it’s not yet happening when the shuttle launches… because you’re glued to the shuttle itself and no longer watching the countdown clock, and (in my case) so intent on the shuttle that you almost can’t hear the NASA mission control announcing the countdown, that first puff of steam came as a complete surprise to me. It also started up at the very beginning of the launch window, at 7:30 am. Due to the distance, the puff is visible before the sound reaches you.
This is an experience everyone should have. It was spiritual… and frightening. I don’t know how the Challenger crew guests got through that tragedy — emotions are already running so high just for the launch itself.

But, thank God, the Atlantis soared high, safe, and majestic… what a sight!

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Some observations that surprised me:

  • The smoke from the rockets was so thick that it cast a shadow across the land
  • A large flock of birds just shot out of the area when it launched… I didn’t expect to see it, although its occurrence doesn’t surprise me too much
  • I recall on our initial visit to KSC, our tour guide told us that after launches they had to go scrape critter parts out of the fence that surrounds the launch pad, as whatever is “within the perimeter” gets splatted. Could explain why those birds were flying so darned fast.
  • After the launch, the smoke spreads across the entire horizon, much further than you think from television coverage.
  • It’s over much more quickly than you expect.