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The Shuttle Launch Road trip Frito's second road trip is an 8000 mile journey to fulfill a childhood dream

As a school kid in the early sixties I used to set the alarm to watch predawn rocket launches on TV. No matter what the hour, I got up to watch. I wasn't going to miss any of these spectacular events, even if it was only on a tiny black and white television screen.

When I reached my sixties, I finally had the time and resources to witness a launch in person, so when the various pieces of the puzzle all clicked in to place, with just a few hours notice I departed on a headlong rush across the continent to see one of the very last launches of the Space Shuttle.

I left my home in southeastern British Columbia on a Wednesday afternoon, and by Sunday afternoon, several audiobooks, quite a bit of Miles Davis and a few TWIT podcasts later, we fetched up in Titusville, FL. We'd made a solo run of over 3000 miles in four days. Frito is a Road Trip Beast. I loathe Interstates, but they got us there, real good.

Before departure, I spent quite a bit of time on the phone, organizing my visit with a nice lady from NASA. She said, "Whatever you do, get there early. The parking lot fills up quickly." So I did.

On this placid steamy Florida morning, things were looking good for tonight's launch, but it was not to be. Those distant clouds behind the Vehicle Assembly Building were bad news. Weather predictions indicated incoming storms, and the launch was delayed for 24 hours. The launch delay left me plenty of time to explore Kennedy Space Center and the nearby Rocket Garden. A complete Saturn V laid out on its side is a daunting sight.

And so is this Rocketdyne F-1 engine, one of five at the base of the Saturn 5 main stage. It was here that I learned what a "turbopump" was. It's an exhaust-gas-driven turbo, just like in your car, but it pumps fuel, not air. Combined, those five engines burn over 12 tons of fuel per second. Holy crap.

At KSC, there's a Shuttle on permanent display. On her underbelly, the Shuttle's infamous insulating tiles, each with its own ID code.

The weather guys were right. Storms arrived by evening and I had time to spend exploring the local area. Frito was proving his worth. Other launch spectators were faced with expensive waiting-time options like hotels and car rentals and restaurants. Frito and I just dawdled until NASA decided they were ready. It was in a Denny's in Florida that I discovered that condensation formed on the outside of the windows, not on the inside like everywhere else. Travel has its rewards.

Another delay due to a leaking fuel valve postponed the launch again, but after three days, more than a few hours on the beach, several sessions in various bars and a couple of movies, it looked like tonight was the night.

I knew that photographing a night launch would be a photographic challenge, one requiring considerable effort and specialized gear. In order to not detract from the experience, I elected not to take any cameras with me on the long bus ride out to the viewing area. I relied on my little Swarovski binoculars and my own eyes to collect memories of the event. It proved a wise decision.

NASA image

This remotely operated camera shows what I didn't see. This is the actual launch of STS 128, Shuttle "Discovery", bound for the Space Station. Several locals told me: "You're lucky. Night launches are the best".

Google Images

This is pretty much what I did see. This amazing vehicle simply lit a huge fire under itself and left the planet. I remember thinking how businesslike it was. How simple in concept is a rocket yet how difficult it is to execute that concept.

Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar, recalling the rough ride during ascent, termed the vehicle's propulsion system "rudimentary". It really is just one long, relatively controlled explosion. And, yes, it is LOUD. Chest-vibrating loud. You feel the sound more than hear it.

NASA Image

Soon after liftoff, Discovery passed through a layer of clouds. They reflected the light from the engines, momentarily lighting up the landscape like a movie special effect. The locals were right. A night launch is spectacular.

The culmination of a childhood dream, the sight and sound of the launch was for me an overpoweringly emotional experience. I called my wife right after the launch, but I was apparently a babbling fool. "Call back when you're coherent", she said.

A few days later, following a detour for some new-owner education and maintenance from a Sprinter specialist in Pennsylvania, on this lovely Missouri morning I had a flat tire. My first in many years.

Fortunately, the Mercedes engineers provided an excellent jacking system and a half hour or so later, I was back on the road. Notice the weird road naming convention. Unique to Missouri, I believe.

Here's what it took to bring things to a halt. This fragment of a roofing nail was still embedded in the tire. And, what amateur mechanic hasn't barked his knuckles on even the simplest procedure? I'll never learn.

My shirt still marked with dirt from my flat tire tribulations, Frito and I say hello to the Mississippi River. Any journey across America is marked by this signal event, so I just had to stop and make this image.

Here, in Hannibal Missouri, I stopped to visit the hometown of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, where I saw the actual fence that Aunt Becky told Tom to paint.

A day or so later, in a gravel pit somewhere near Billings, I savoured the full moon and contemplated what I'd seen a few days before in Florida. For me, quiet moments like this alone in the countryside are what van camping is all about.

Home again, Frito poses in our valley along the shores of Duck Lake. Frito had enabled a superb adventure - the second such trip we'd had since I'd met him just a few weeks earlier in Arizona. Now, we were bonded. And just beginning our life together.

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Created By
Peter Mclennan
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Photos by the author, except as noted

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