Yesterday’s final launch of the space shuttle program passed with little fanfare. It did, however, remind me of my trip to Kennedy Space Center last year and finally satisfying my life long desire to go into space.
As a young boy, long before I heard the term ‘bucket list’, I dreamed of being an astronaut. As a young man I realized I didn’t necessarily have the ‘right stuff’ to get selected for NASA’s space program. I have three Naval Academy classmates who are astronauts; Brent Jett, Wendy Lawrence, and Kay Hire. Google ’em – you’ll get a taste of what “The Right Stuff” really is.
In February 2010, I had the great honor of watching my friend Kay, at age 50, go up for her second trip to space on the space shuttle STS – 130 Endeavor. I brought my father, also a Navy ( ’56) grad as well as a former nuclear submarine commander. This would be his 75th birthday gift.
Our first stop was the official ‘Astronaut Kay Hire Reception’ at Milliken’s Reef Restaurant in Port Canaveral. Becky Hire, Kay’s sister, hosted the gathering of well wishers composed of family, friends and former colleagues. It was a fun and festive gathering reconnecting with classmates and fellow Kay-fans.
Although the launch wasn’t scheduled until 4:30 AM the following day, we needed to be at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, the staging area for “Official Guests”, by 10:30 PM. The traffic on the two lane road from Titusville was painfully slow and tortuous; concurrently it seemed to have an escalating effect on my enthusiasm. By the time we parked the car, I could barely contain myself. I jumped out and began chatting it up with a couple from Alaska, “I am really excited. My friend Kay Hire is going up in space!”
“We know the Shuttle Commander!” the woman said, beaming.
“Really?” Until that point, I don’t think I even considered that someone else might actually know an astronaut.
“That’s great!” I said, and endured her story about their connection.
The next person I spoke to also knew one of the crew. As did the next. In fact, just about each person I spoke with had a personal connection to one of the crew. A true lesson in humility is standing in line with 10,000 other people who also “know an astronaut”.
Weather conditions at the emergency landing site in Spain caused the launch to be scrubbed. We boarded the bus back to the Visitor Complex. It would be close to 7 AM before we would get back to our hotel. We had already agreed that if the launch was postponed, we’d come back for the ‘do-over’ the next day.
Somewhere along the line, classmate Laurie ‘Mik’ Miklos, a 23 year Navy helicopter pilot- turned-artist, and I hatched a plan to pull an “all nighter”. First we would enjoy a Grand Slam Breakfast at Denny’s, then head over to open the Astronaut Hall of Fame, and ride the “G-Force Trainer”. This little humdinger of a ride is designed to simulate the pressure of four times the force of gravity. Let me be clear; even though I was a ship driver and a Supply Officer, I hung in there with my aviator sister (including keeping the bacon, eggs and muffins down!)
The primary mission of the STS-130 crew was to install the 7 windowed cupola named Tranquility Node. Kay was the designated Mission Specialist 1 and Lead Robotics Operator. At one point Noreen, then a school principal, commented, “My roommate is putting an expansion on the International Space Station, and I’m handing out detention slips. What happened?”
Aside from a near international incident between Mik and a Japanese camera crew, the second night was much less crowded, and went much smoother. The countdown heightened the anticipation of the crowd that returned. From our vantage point about 4 miles away, the launch experience rolled at us in waves:
First we saw it.
Then we heard it.
Then we felt it.
The immense pride and excitement each of us felt was not only for Kay, but for the entire STS-130 Crew, NASA, and the United States of America. The sight of my father, standing at attention, with his hand over his heart as he watched Endeavor accelerate through the night sky will be forever imprinted on my brain. It would have been difficult to find a dry eye on the beach that morning.
Exhausted, goofy and exhilarated with adrenaline coursing through our veins, we reluctantly began to pack up after two very long days. Dad took one last picture of Noreen, Mik and me, and emailed it to Becky Hire. Becky, in turn, forwarded it to Kay while in space. How cool is that?
So that’s how I got to space! Not exactly how I had dreamed as a young boy, but a ‘bucket list’ item checked off nonetheless!
Here is the link to the video taken from my cell phone. Please pardon the lack of imagination in the commentary.