Mel was excited too. The last time she had been at the Kennedy Space Center was right after the shuttle Challenger exploded. The Space program was on hold, and much of the activities in the center focused on keeping the program alive. So it was really special to be there to witness what we've accomplished since then.
The Discovery was the shuttle that was launching that day, and its mission was to deliver a new module for the international space station.
We had to get special tickets to be at the Space Center on launch day. We ordered them ahead of time and were so unspeakably excited when they arrived!
We had to arrive at the Space Center early - several hours before the launch. We had been warned about traffic in the area - and boy they weren't kidding! But we got there and scoped out what we thought would be a perfect viewing spot - and boy did we guard that spot! There was only one problem.... The place where we were looking very intensely wasn't where the shuttle lifted off! We still could see it though - fortunately. But it was kind of funny!
They had the launch control stuff going over loudspeakers, so we could hear messages to the shuttle as they prepared for lift-off. Then the countdown started. It was really neat because EVERYONE there counted down. 5.....4........3........2.........1! And then you heard the engines. It was a low roaring noise - hard to explain. You almost felt it more than heard it. And then (once we looked in the right direction), you could see it - lifting over the trees, leaving a trail of white smoke behind it. Everyone cheered! It's really an emotional moment to see it happen. As it raised up toward the heavens, you could hear shuttle command talking to the astronauts. We heard the command for booster separation then saw it happen. We could even see the solid rocket boosters plummeting back to earth. And we followed the shuttle until it was just a speck of light leaving the atmosphere.
(excuse the shakiness of the video - you'll get a laugh because you can hear us going "Wait - where is it??")
Even in the video, you can feel the roar of the engines. Where you hear everyone clapping - about 1 min, 30 seconds in, that's when the Solid Rocket Boosters separated. We could see them falling back to Earth.
After the launch, we all just stood there and breathed for a few moments - I think the whole place had been holding its breath! And then we were able to roam around the facility and check it out....
This big building held the space shuttle launch simulator ride. You could actually get tickets to go in and experience what a launch would feel like. What was neat is that you had actual real astronauts describing what it would feel like and why you would feel the things you did. Of course, we thought Mission Space over at EPCOT was just a little bit of a better ride.....
There is also a life-size model of a shuttle that you can go into and look at - you can see the control panel room and the payload bay. It was kind of neat.
And it made a great place to hang out and get some shade.....
The rocket garden was really neat. There were models of rockets from all different stages of the space program that you could see - and some you could even go into. The rockets are beautiful silhouetted against the clear blue sky.
We could see the ginormous Vehicle Assembly Building - but since it was a launch day, we could not take the tour that takes you out there and to the launch pads.
One of the most touching displays at the Kennedy Space Center is the memorial to astronauts who have lost their life. There is a huge black marble slab and their names are etched into it. The slab is on rollers and can be moved. It is moved throughout the day so that it always reflects the sky - so that "the astronauts will forever be among the clouds." We stood there and looked at it in silence for awhile.
If you ever have a chance to visit Kennedy Space Center, I can't recommend it highly enough. If you will be in the area when there's a launch, do everything you can to go see it. The shuttle program is scheduled to end in 2010, so there wont be that many more launches. And it's soooo worth it. Now I'm hoping I can see the shuttle land at Edwards Air Force base. It lands here once in awhile, but there isn't much notice so it's VERY hard to get out there to see it. But just a couple of weeks ago, I heard the twin sonic booms as the shuttle flew over my house for a landing at Edwards just a couple of minutes later. That may be as close as I get to seeing it, but I'm still hoping!
(And if any astronauts out there want to take me on a shuttle flight.... just send me an email and I'm there!!!!)