Goodbye Shuttle Discovery – STS 133 Final Flight
by Robert Freeland II
Yesterday my wife and I took our twin boys (age 5) to see the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-133. This is the last mission of Space Shuttle Discovery, and the remaining two Shuttles only have one mission each before they too are retired. Despite having lived here in Tampa for over a decade, my wife and I had never attended a launch — and STS-133 offered a convenient launch window at 4:50pm — so we figured it was high time. The drive across the state from Tampa to Titusville normally takes about 2 hours. We picked the Boys up from school at 11:00pm and stopped an hour later in Orlando for lunch. That left us about 3 1/2 hours to drive the short remaining distance from Orlando to Titusville and find a good viewing location. It turns out that this was only just barely enough time, because traffic was absolutely unbelievable. It was stop-and-go, with an average speed of about 5 mph the entire way from Orlando to Titusville. We were fortunate to arrive at the shore by 4:30pm, giving us just 20 minutes to park and find a spot to watch the launch. The crowds were astonishing: there were throngs of people occupying every single spot that might provide a view of the launch. Given that it had taken my family 5 1/2 hours to reach that point, it’s rather remarkable that we got there in time. Nevertheless, we found a perfect spot at the east end of Highway 50, not 5 feet from the edge of the bay, looking straight out at the launch pad. There really is no closer viewing location without tickets purchased months in advance. It was slightly hazy, but the sky was clear. We could easily see the assembly hanger across the water, though all we could see on the actual launch pad was the metal frame gantry. As the countdown reached zero, we saw a huge plume of smoke erupt from the launch pad, and then we saw the bright torch of fire from the rocket engines. We never could see the Shuttle itself, and the rocket was hundreds (thousands?) of feet into the air before we heard any sound — the familiar rumble of the Shuttle engines as seen on TV, but distant and muffled. The Shuttle climbed for just over 2 minutes on a huge plume of smoke, and then the solid rocket boosters were dropped (barely visible specs appearing behind the Shuttle), and the smoke largely vanished. The three liquid-fuel main engines apparently don’t generate anywhere near as much smoke as the solid rocket boosters. Discovery was still visible as a small bright spot in the sky as it continued to climb, but shortly afterward we lost sight of it altogether, leaving just the plume of smoke drifting slowly southward. Ten minutes later, the throngs of people were all moving back toward their cars. By 5:15pm, we were back in our car too, but we were going nowhere. We thought the traffic was bad coming into to Titusville, but that traffic was spread out over several hours. On the return, everyone was trying to leave at once, resulting in complete gridlock. It took us almost an hour to travel maybe 1000 feet from our parking spot. We finally made it out to the main road leading from Titusville back toward Orlando, but it was again bumper-to-bumper, just crawling along. My boys were reaching the end of their patience with all the driving, and they begged to stop, but there was literally nowhere to go. Eventually they both fell asleep. By 9:00pm, we made it onto the bypass toll road around Orlando, and traffic returned to normal. We made one brief stop to stretch our legs, and returned home at 10:30pm. We had been in the car for most of the last 12 hours. By comparison, we could have driven to Washington, DC from here in that same span of time. Upon reflection on the day’s experience, I was struck by two conflicting impressions. On the one hand, it was awesome to see an actual Shuttle launch, knowing all the engineering, planning, manpower, material, money, etc. that goes into making that a reality. But on the other hand, it was remarkable just how tiny and insignificant the Shuttle and the launch actually appear. Heck, I’ve launched model rockets that looked about the same (though closer, obviously). I couldn’t help but think that mankind with its little surface-launched chemical rockets is still at a laughably primitive level with its space flight. In a way, this helped bring me some closure with respect to the Space Shuttle program. Yes, this has been a wildly successful program, but the technology is really [i]way[/i] past its prime, and it’s time to move on to something more appropriate to the 21st century. In particular, we need a far more efficient way to get cargo and people into space if we ever hope to build anything significant off-planet. Our little chemical rockets — even the biggest ones — just aren’t going to cut it.