Nighttime Sun Worshippers

Taking nothing away from Comic Con, the assembly of tailgaters along Florida Route-401 at Port Canaveral was probably one of the largest collection of early morning geeks ever recorded. It was a carnival atmosphere, with fellow space cadets gathered from around the world to witness one of science’s greatest guilty pleasures–a space launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

But this was to be no ordinary launch. This time around, the payload carried atop the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket has been 60 years in the making, named for Eugene N. Parker, a pioneer astrophysicist who predicted the existence of solar winds in a 1958 paper presented to an editorial panel who flatly rejected his claim.

Dr. Parker--Joshua Lott for The New York Times
Photo credit: Joshua Lott for the New York TImes

Four years later, NASA’s Venus probe (Mariner 2) measured interplanetary energy particles that eventually vindicated Dr. Parker’s belief.

The Parker project was conceived for NASA by engineers at John Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in 2005, later amounting to costs running $1.5 billion in order to investigate the nature of our star, and gain an up-close understanding of solar winds.

Originally, Leah and I were on the fence about whether we should make the 2-hour trek from St. Augustine for the launch last night. After all, we’d been burned earlier in the year when we attempted to catch a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lift-off (T Minus 3 Days and Holding) during January’s Florida freeze-out.

But this time around, it was personal. Leah’s family had traveled to Florida’s Space Coast from Albuquerque last week (Tourist Attractions) with the intention of watching the Parker Solar Probe launch, only to be disappointed when the on-again-off-again mission was scrubbed for the third time on August 4, when a loose piece of foam was discovered inside the fairing. Daniel’s family was to be NASA’s guests to acknowledge SolAero’s design and fabrication of the probe’s photovoltaic assembly. Leah and I were to be tag-alongs.

Although we had no official invitation for this morning’s event, Leah and I were still determined to bear witness as a tribute to Daniel’s work. We departed at 11:30 pm, and made easy time on I-95S, cruising down the interstate to an uncertain destination. NASA had delivered a 65-minute window for the 3:33 a.m. launch, so we would pad our arrival time in anticipation of getting situated.

We knew we had arrived when we discovered a cluttered roadside collection of vehicles illegally parked along a shoreline clearing with an ersatz view of the gantry in the far distance.

Google map.png

The eight miles separating us from the rocket would be as close as we could get, since access to the base was restricted and blockaded by a fleet of sheriff cars.

sheriff patrol (2)

After a couple of runs up and down the strip, I wedged the F-150 into a narrow gap of parked cars, barely touching the inside road line, but nevertheless legitimate enough to get a pass from the deputy.

I found a vacancy among the scores of tripods already populating the tall grass beside the rocky beach, and staked my claim–although I felt totally inadequate and out-classed–while surrounded by all the super-duper telephoto lenses, and suffering from an acute case of optics envy.

In preparation of the big moment, amateurs and pros alike fussed and fawned over their equipment, changing batteries, polishing lenses, accessorizing camera bodies with autodrives and cable releases, and participating in riveting discussions on ISO vs. aperture vs. shutter speed.

Yet nothing could compare to the mobile telescope for astrophotography that occupied the largest footprint of our makeshift parking lot.

electronic camera

Even its imaging display seemed more complicated than it had to be.

monitors

While it was impossible to compete with all the big boys and their toys, I took a practice shot after setting up, although I knew the lighting would never compare to the day for night exposure once the rocket thrusters lit up the sky.

Zoomed to the max at 600mm, the ISO set at 200, the aperture set at ƒ/8, and a 1 second exposure, my Lumix FZ300 captured this shot of the gantry 8 miles away.

Parker Probe

I reckon that if the atmospheric conditions had been less humid, the image would have been crisper-looking.

There was nothing more to do except wait…

The 3:48 am goal had come and passed without results.

The revised launch time was pushed to 3:53 a.m. The countdown resumed at T-minus-four, and again–for some unknown reason–the launch was suspended while engineers determined the fate of the rocket.

When NASA calculated to green-light the launch at 4:28 a.m., the buzz around us was that this would finally be the moment. Nobody would dare admit aloud or to themselves that this was just another dress rehearsal.

We mostly waited in silence for the next half-hour. The sound of jumping fish in the darkness was a pleasant distraction from the drone of distant internet reporting from a fan’s elaborate sound system.

And then the moment all of us dreaded…with under one minute before the serious countdown:

“Hold, hold, hold!” announced an engineer from Launch 37 Command Center.

The rocket’s helium pressure system had tripped an alarm, taking the launch back to T-minus-four. The 65-minute launch window was quickly closing with ten minutes left, leaving insufficient time to troubleshoot the red flag and light this candle.

The mission was aborted and a collective sigh crossed the highway.

Leah and I drove back home with the sun rising over Matanzas River as we approached St. Augustine. My sole consolation was knowing that besides driving roundtrip for a still picture of a rocket strapped to a gantry in the distance, all I had to do was unmount my camera and fold up my tripod, while somebody else had to wrap up and tow away that enormous mobile telescope.

We slept until noon.

Flight officials determined that in 24 hours they would try all over again.

And when that happens, it will be without us. Instead, I’ll be watching NASA’s live stream of the launch at 3:31 a.m. from my armchair:

…maybe…

…if I can keep my eyes open.

Zzzzz…

P.S. The Parker Solar probe successfully launched on time:

https://amp-space-com.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/amp.space.com/41454-nasa-parker-solar-probe-launches-to-sun.html?amp_js_v=a2&amp_gsa=1&usqp=mq331AQCCAE%3D&jwsource=em

…and I got to see it…

…from my TV monitor!

T Minus 3 Days and Holding

Leah and I had counted down to the last possible day when we could tour Kennedy Space Center (KSC) while still parked at Melbourne’s Land Yacht Harbor,

Land Yacht Harbor

an Airstream-only campground (with a sprinkling of some other brands–SOBs), mostly occupied by retirees and their vintage motorhomes,

Land Yacht (2)

and trailers.

vintage airstream

At first, the weather on the Space Coast was uncooperative–cold and rainy–but we were determined to time our visit in conjunction with a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch–the first scheduled launch of the year, where the rocket’s reusable first stage would attempt a controlled landing back at Cape Canaveral Air Force base. Of course, we were departing for Playa del Carmen on Saturday, so we had also run out of time.

With a break in the weather, we would make a day of it at KSC,

rocket park

and apparently, so would thousands of other visitors. With the rest of the country seemingly paralyzed by meat locker temperatures the first week of 2018, we felt fortunate to feel the sun through brisk winds and crisp air.

Nasa ornament (7)

After mapping our itinerary for the day at the nearby Visitor Center, we filed past the admission gate…

explore

through a labyrinth of attractions dedicated to Mars exploration…

rover stats

Mars rover

Orion capsule

and a dedication to fallen explorers…

Heroes and Legends

in search of an Astronaut Encounter…

astronaut encounter1

with Heidi Piper…

Piper portrait (2)

a mission specialist, credited with flights aboard Atlantis in 2006 and Endeavor in 2008 to expand the systems and living quarters aboard the International Space Station. In addition to following her career from Navy to NASA, her presentation included factoids about the Shuttle and the shittle, detailing the water-recycling and freeze-drying properties of the squateroo.

Following a profound 3D IMAX film on space exploration–as only Captain Picard, aka Sir Patrick Stewart could narrate–we gravitated to the Orbit Cafe…

Saturn rocket and Orbit Cafe

where freeze-dried ice cream was not an option on the menu (albeit, available at the gift shop).

From there, it was an hour-long queue…

bus queue

with enlightening graphics along the way,

bus queue graphis

for the tour bus…

bus tour interior (2)

that carried us to the Apollo/Saturn V Center, with drive-by glimpses of the Vehicle Assembly Building,

rocket assembly

bus tour

and a launch pad along the way.

launch tower (2)

After experiencing a multimedia simulation of the Apollo 8 lift-off,

Apollo mission control

we were giddy with excitement to witness the technology that captured Kennedy’s imagination and took us to the moon. But nothing prepared us for the enormity of the Saturn V rocket stretching across a football stadium-sized hanger.

rocket oulets (2)

Measuring 111m/363 ft long,

stage 1

booster (2)

we slowly strolled the length of the boosters, making our way through the different stages suspended above our heads…

stage 2

stage 3

before approaching the grounded command module,

command module

which dwarfed the Apollo 13 L.E.M. hovering above us.

LEM (2)

Behind a bordering wall, the Apollo 14 capsule rested on a protected pedestal in a dimly lit room which seemed to heighten the drama.

Apollo capsule (2)

We transitioned to a multi-sensory surround presentation of a space shuttle launch, culminating in a dazzling, thunderous lift-off that shook our core. When the exhaust plume cleared, the projection scrim rose for the big reveal…

Atlantis shuttle (3)

giving all of us a true appreciation for the engineering wizardry that could shoot a glider strapped to a rocket into space,

shuttle belly

and have it safely return to earth…flying a total of 33 missions and over 126,000,000 miles before retiring!

shuttle tail

And how apropos, that the mission transport vehicle selected by NASA should feature an Airstream to introduce our astronauts into space?

mission transport (2)

Unfortunately, the SpaceX mission that we so wanted to witness was put off until Sunday, when a worthier weather window made the wonder more winsome.

This is how the launch looked to us from Mexico, where we streamed it in awe.