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Don't watch the Shuttle launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC)

Joseph Mack

jmack (at) austintek (dot) com

4 Feb 2012, released under GPL-v3


I know there's only one shuttle launch left but

  • At the most you're going to see 2mins of shuttle flight, the first 30-45secs blocked by trees. If the clouds are low, as they were for STS-134, the shuttle enters the clouds before it clears the trees; i.e. you won't see a thing.
  • Your chances of seeing a launch, on any particular launch attempt, aren't great. It took 3 attempts to get STS-134 off the ground. Even though NASA has been launching the shuttle for 30yrs, this is still an experimental, not a production program.
  • If you really want to see the shuttle launch, stay at home. Buy a $500 big screen LCD monitor and watch the launch on TV or the internet; you're guaranteed to see the shuttle go up. Afterwards, you'll have the monitor as a souvenir. It will be cheaper than the alternative. I spent $250 on tickets, $360 on petrol/gas, $170 in toys/souvenirs for the kids of my coworker, plus accomodation, 2,500miles of wear and tear on the car and 4 days and I still didn't see the shuttle go up. If you don't watch TV, you can always use the monitor for your computer, or you can impress your friends with it.
  • If you want to hear the crackle of the shuttle engines (you do) watch it on IMAX. At KSC I heard the crackle of the engines. On IMAX I felt the engines in my chest too and the sound was synchronised with the view. At KSC the crackle was delayed by over 30secs. I couldn't correlate the crackle with lift-off, gaining speed or going supersonic. At KSC, since I didn't see the shuttle, rather than enjoying the crackle, I spent the time wondering what part of the flight path I was listening to.
  • If you really want to be there, watch from anywhere but KSC.
  • I expect the best place to see it from is the causeway at NASA, but I don't know how you get in there. If you're going to KSC, watch it from the parking lot (somewhere to the east of all the buildings) or the road outside, not inside KSC.
  • You don't have to be at Cape Canaveral to see the shuttle go up. The shuttle will be high enough to see SRB separation from 500 miles away. The image will be microscopic - you'll see a pinpoint of light and it will be on the horizon. The image will be twice the size from 250miles away (you'll get a better view than I did), but you won't hear anything.

Material/images from this webpage may be used, as long as credit is given to the author, and the url of this webpage is included as a reference.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. 1st Attempt (scrubbed)
3. 2nd Attempt (scrubbed)
4. 3rd Attempt (hidden by trees)
5. Conclusion
6. Postscript

1. Introduction

I remember Sputnik I going up. In the following months, at the dawn of the space age, I stood outside shortly after sunset, watching for the predicted passage of rocket casings (the satellites were too small to see, but the dead casings were large and when the publicity factor was realised, were painted silver to enhance their reflectivity). Subsequently I followed with great interest, genkind's attempts to explore the universe, from the vantage point of outer space.

Later I welcomed the launch of Telstar ( the first step I remember in the peaceful use of space. I grew up in Australia, when phoning USA was expensive, required booking several days ahead and writing a letter to notify the recipient of the planned phone call. Telstar promised the end of this. At the time I didn't know that the first television signals relayed through Telstar had been a bread and circuses gladiator sports program. Nor did I know that Telstar was to die prematurely several months later, its demise hushed by goverments, blasted by radiation from the nuclear weapons that were being detonated in space to maintain world peace. Until Telstar, the space program had been the visible arm of the cold war protection racket run by the two thugs on the block; Russia and USA. As a country you had the choice of joining the thugs blessed by god, or the thugs who have no need of god. If you're Australia, and have a State Religion (a variant of Christianty), you join the thugs blessed by god.

It's not just any Christianity; it's the Church of England, a religion set up by one of the King's of England, so that he could divorce his wife. Presumably a divorce-friendly god was available to head up the new religion. I was press ganged into this religion as an infant, without informed assent (they were after adherants, not partners). On one of my return trips to Australia, I was surprised to find that the Church of England had been overthrown and its assets were in possession of a new religion, the Church of Australia. I haven't checked out the new god yet; maybe he/she accepts gay marriage. As a god, your position is precarious, and your run is short, if your fickle worshippers change under you and you don't keep up with them. The old religion only lasted 200yrs, a short time in eternity, and the overthrow went unnoticed from USA. Australians had tired of the god of a descendant foreign power and rightly wanted their own Vegemite loving one. My trust in the last god had soured. He'd wanted me to die in a rice paddy in Vietnam, a death that wouldn't have helped Australia or the South Vietnamese seeking liberation from their autocratic goverment supported by foreign powers. My wisdom, at a youthful and inexperienced 18, was better than the old god's and I looked elsewhere for leadership.

Some countries (eventually New Zealand) saw no reason to side with thugs of any stripe. To me, Telstar was a promise to talk to my grandfather in USA and I greeted its arrival with great joy.

The space race was an unintended consequence, there was no reason it had to happen. WWII pulled America out of the depression. By 1945, US industry was pumping out more ships for the invasion of Japan than it could find men to crew them. The only way to keep the economy running like this after the war, was to maintain the economy on a permanent war footing. Who should be the enemy then? Britain was a mess, Germany and Japan were rubble. Who was left? Well what about Russia? 20million had died at the hands of the Nazis; Stalin had eliminated the educated, the technicate and the military leaders. Korolev ( was in a Siberian gulag, where beatings ruined his health and shortened his life. Zhukov ( was an unperson. The leaders were repressive and easy to demonise. The peasantry had no truck with USA; they just wanted to recover from WWII (they had only just recovered, population wise, from Ghengis Khan). If you'd asked any of them, they'd probably think that the USA was their friend. The economy was agrarian and would collapse in ruin 35yrs later of its own accord, from the weight of the oppressive system and independantly of any action by the US. Russia was a headless economic basket case - it was perfect. Rather than wait them out or foster native leadership in the countries overrun by Russia, the US turned its WWII friend into an enemy and the US economy became the world's greatest manufacturer of weapons and supplier of military (and not economic) assistance to foreign countries.

The US had no intention of going into space. After Sputnik 1, the US ran around like chickens with their heads cut off. The fault was the lack of vision and political will, but the politicians blamed their favourite whipping boy, the underfunded teachers and the education system, who hadn't produced the required number of rocket scientists on time. There were of plenty of rocket scientists. Werner von Braun and his team, rotting in Huntsville, had been been urging the US to go into space, since 1945. But using the same methods that defeated Japan, the US cranked out more rockets and satellites than Korolev could ever do. The US had started way behind in the space race, because its rockets were less powerful. The reason for that? US nuclear weapons were more advanced and lighter and only needed small rockets.

I didn't understand that there was a space race. Going into space, because it was there and because we could, was the only logical thing to do in the 1950s. I thought the whole world was going into space and that Russia and America were the ones doing it, because they were the ones with the economic resources to do so. Years later, the Americans beat the Russians to the moon and celebrated by cancelling the Apollo program. I was disillusioned to realise that America had never been interested in space and that my efforts to prepare myself for an adulthood of exploring the universe had been based on lies.

Then the shuttle came along. Scientists wanted a platform to look out into space. The Air Force wanted a platform to look down on the earth. The taxpayers got a bomber. What was it for? There was no work for it to do, there was no (U.S.) space station to go to. (The ISS didn't come for another 20yrs and was justified by Regan to give the Shuttle something to do. By the time the ISS was running, the US has shut down the Shuttle program and had given notice that it was cutting support for the ISS, which I guess is going to become the SS.) They found something for the shuttle to do. Scientific payloads ready to be launched by cheap expendable rockets had their launches cancelled. The experimenters were told to reengineer the payload to fit into the shuttle bay, delaying their launch sometimes by decades and enormously increasing the cost of the experiments. Once in earth orbit, a human operator in the shuttle, depending on a costly and failure prone life support system, would press a button to send the experiment on its way. Payloads that needed boosting to their target, weren't allowed to use a booster anymore (the booster might explode in the shuttle bay) and instead the payloads took interplanetary detours to be slingshot accelarated by other objects in the solar system (see Magellan and Galileo

Meanwhile the Russians already found out everything you needed to know about living in space. They'd accumulated many man-years living semi-autonomously in Mir, simulating trips to Mars. (see Book Review "Leaving Earth", and "Genesis" by Robert Zimmerman ,

Years later, shortly after the first shuttle launch, it seemed that everyone I knew already seen a launch, some the spectacular night launch. (When did these people work?) I remember listening enthralled as one of these people (wearing a T-shirt inscribed with the orbit of Halley's comet) described the launch. I had to go, but how and when? After the Challenger explosion I was again disillusioned with the US space program and crossed the shuttle launch off my list of things to do. While it was one thing to kill career astronauts through incompetence, they at least knew the risks and it was their job to take the risks. Killing an innocent civilian, Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher and one of the most valuable (and underpaid) members of our society, was way beyond anything that was acceptable. There was no reason to send people in space. There was less than no reason to kill high school teachers in space.

2. 1st Attempt (scrubbed)

About 10yrs ago, by dumb luck, a shuttle launch was scheduled for the week I was in Florida. The memory of the Challenger explosion had faded. Searches of the internet revealed no good spots to see the launch; all would be packed, with poor parking and a long way from the launch site. With the citizens fronting the bill, the govt could easily put in a large parking lot at a convenient location amongst the hundreds of square miles of available sedge and grass, to show the taxpayers where their money was going.

There's a parking lot ready to go right now: the 6 miles of split 4 lane road between the Astronaut Hall of Fame and KSC has space for 3 rows of cars on both sides of both halves of the road. You could put 19,000 cars there at 20'/car. I remember pulling off and trying to identify the shuttle launch pad, so at least some of it has a clear view. Charge $25 for port-a-potties and trashbins and open the road 24hrs before launch.

A webpage on the internet would show the launch dates for anything and everything that was going into space, not just the shuttle. Why should only the Russians know what and when we're launching? At least that's what would happen in a socialist society, where the citizens are valued and respected members of society, but we all know this is not the way an innovative democracy works. From amongst the not-so-good places, I picked the causeway on route A1A about 20miles south of the launch pad. The roads around Titusville, to the west of the launch site, were supposed to have better viewing, but were so popular that you had to arrive several days ahead to find parking.

The launch was for the afternoon and I arrived about 9am to find the A1A causeway packed with cars and people (I assume some had arrived at least the day before). Weather was 100% overcast with intermittant rain. With binoculars, you could clearly see the shuttle on the launch pad. The launch was delayed a few hours in hopes that the weather would clear, but finally scrubbed in the late afternoon. The only connection to news on the launch was through my 2m ham radio to LISATS ( which kept me (and the people around me) posted on the launch and the scrubbing. NASA could have put on a low power FM station for the day to keep the taxpayer's current with the day's events, but you're not going to get this in an innovation driven economy.

KSC was closed to the public till after the launch (presumably for paying guests like I became in Apr/May 2011), so after the scrubbing we drove to KSC to check it out. It was museum type displays and a fast food restaurant. With NASA's budget, prominence in exploring space and access to the best brains in the country, I had expected displays on a par (or better) with the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. I found a display fitting a 3rd world country with a fragile economy and 50% literacy rate, where large amounts of money are syphoned to flashy goverment programs to impress the uncritical, while nothing is given back to the populace. My memory was refreshed on recent trip (2nd and 3rd attempt). The displays were cold war propaganda, and only referred to the US manned space program. No-one needs to be reminded yet again that the US beat the Russians to the moon and haven't found any role for people in space since; but didn't other countries explore space too? Didn't unmanned probes explore the solar system? Was the Cold War the only reason for going into space? The displays were guaranteed to not to enhance the technical knowledge of either the adept or the novice. One of the displays talks about an era when calculations were done with slide rulers [sic]. Beam me up Scotty.

The units are Imperial. I grew up in a system that used Imperial units for social occasions (daily weather), but used metric in the educational system. My reference temperatures (freezing, melting, boiling points) are in centigrade or Kelvin (see the absolute temperature scale At KSC all temperatures are in F, giving you no frame of reference (is that temperature hotter than a regular flame, the melting point of titanium? of the surface of the sun?). NASA realises that the temperatures it gives are are meaningless and attempts to give alternate frames of reference; in one display you're told that a temperature is hotter than the melting point of aluminium. How many people know the the order of melting points of metals? You may be able to foist this nonsense on victims of the american education system, but does NASA have any idea of the effect these displays on people educated elsewhere (a German engineer)?

I used to wonder why the results of space exploration were never published. I didn't read astrophysics journals, but with the money being spent on the space program, you'd expect papers in Science or Nature every second issue. Maybe it was all being published in some in-house NASA journal. Maybe it was all being kept secret. The public, who were paying for, it weren't seeing any of the results. I assumed they weren't finding anything and there was nothing to publish. For all the money, the only benefit claimed by NASA for the space program, was the teflon non-stick frying pan. We paid trillions of dollars for a frying pan? Who uses non-stick frying pans? Rather than coming out of the space program, teflon ( was accidently discovered in 1938 and was used extensively in the WWII Manhattan project.

Another NASA program, the Hubble telescope, is well described in Eric J Chaisson's book "The Hubble Wars". The project is a littany of mismanagement, with the mirror's spherical aberration being the norm rather than the exception.

  • the spherically aberrated mirror: We (the public and Congress) were told it was fixed. It wasn't; we got a snow job. The focal point for light from the edge of the mirror and the center differed by 1" and was uncorrectable. Instead the COSTAR correction only used the inner half (by diameter) of the mirror throwing away the outer 3/4 of the area. Hubble's useful mirror is only 1.2m in diameter, the size of a large amateur telescope. There were plenty of warning signs - the people grinding the mirror remarked that they were taking a lot of glass off the mirror. To save money, the mirror wasn't tested before launch, making a hero of the budgetter for that part of the project.
  • the bad gyros. The gyros were left over from another project, had been running continuously for 8yrs and failed almost immediately when put in service. It was like buying a car at 500,000 miles, and being told it's new.
  • the flexing solar panels: the solar panels flexed 6" when the scope went from light to dark. Flexing is normal, but you attach the solar panels at the center of mass of the telescope, so that the orientation of the scope doesn't change on the transition. The Hubble design prevented photographing an image through these transitions (upto twice an orbit).
  • non-space hardened electronics: the telescope would roll whenever a high energy particle hit the computer, and the photos would be lost, making long exposures impossible. Because of this, the scope had to be shut down every time it passed through the South Atlantic Anomaly (
  • the toilet seat aperture cover didn't have a damper, so that it slammed shut jarring the optics and loosing guidance,
  • the series style data buss: information from instruments was passed through other instruments back to the data storage, rather than being passed directly. When an intermediate instrument failed, the distal instruments were lost.
  • not designed to be serviced in space: Despite being touted as being servicable by astronauts, it wasn't. Astronauts operate in constricting space suits with hands effectively in boxing gloves. Servicing should be tool-less - flip a lever, pull out a drawer and push in the replacement drawer. Most (if not all of it) should be done by a robot, not an astronaut. Instead, to service the telescope astronauts had to undo (and keep track of) dozens of screws and labour for hours in space, fixing and servicing parts that no-one had ever anticipated would need fixing. The first service blew one of the working instruments - turning on a new power supply killed the unrelated working instrument.
  • The scientists: didn't want the public to see any photos. They'd worked hard to get Hubble and the images were theirs. When one of the staff at the Space Science Inst. (in Baltimore), which ran the Hubble day to day, suggested that the public had paid for the scope and that they were entitled to some pretties, the scientist in charge of the scientist's committee, said he'd flatten the Space Science Inst. guy if he did, and that the public could go to hell.

After my trip to KSC, I assume that the management of the Hubble project is the norm.

The displays at KSC are to remind the public that NASA is not looking to the educated and critical public for supporters, partners or potential employees. NASA then wonders why Congress can't see the value in the space program and keeps cutting its budgets. The US govt turned the ennobling and enlightening exploration of space into a pissing contest, showing the world that they were no different from the thugs and demons running Russia. The US threw away its intellectual inheritance for a bowl of pottage, an indictment of the US education system. It was an expensive pissing contest for sure and the lives of people in captive nations and the rest of the world were held hostage to nuclear annihilation to keep everyone confused. On display at KSC is the US proudly showing that it won the pissing contest. Big deal. You spent 50yrs flogging and terrorising the dead horse of Russia, when you could have been liberating oppressed peoples and educating your own people. The health, wealth, skills and critical thinking of the next generation comes from today's teachers. You don't criticise soldiers if the have trouble fighting a war; you send them more resources. You should do the same for teachers; pay them more, pay them like medical doctors (and maybe you won't need so many doctors for the next generation of more aware people). Deep down people, no matter how confused they might be on the surface by the propaganda, realise they're seeing a pissing contest. NASA's job should be education and enlightenment, not winning pissing contests. Space exploration is no more the provenance of a nation than is mathematics, literature or art. The displays should show what the world has learned since we went into space. The public will eventually realise that it's an activity of genkind. They (and Congress) will come away saying "this is great stuff, we should be in more of this".

The only edible food at the KSC restaurant(s) was a salad (which was quite acceptable, but I wouldn't want to eat there for too many days).

There was a memorial to astronauts who'd given their lives in service to their country. How the war metaphor became conflated with tradgedies in the early exploration of space, I don't know. NASA is confused. Is Amelia Earhart, and other aviation pioneers who died as a result of plane crashes, remembered for giving her life in service to her country? There were a lot more dead astronauts than I knew about. While I knew about the Apollo launch pad fire, the Challenger explosion (and later the Columbia disaster), the other astronauts had died singly, presumably street racing their Corvettes (as described in Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff") or in plane crashes while keeping their flying requirements current. If so, their deaths weren't the result of risking their lives exploring space. NASA presented no information on the circumstances involved and expected me to take their word that a death on the Appolo launch pad and in a plane crash, while maintaining flying hours, were equivalent. If there was more to it than that, NASA didn't want me to know. If Neil Armstrong had died while ejecting from the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (, I would have accepted his place on the memorial, but not if he died driving his car to the mall.

Subsequently, from my home in N. Carolina, I watched high inclination evening launches from an amateur astronomy (i.e. dark) observing site. The shuttle was easily visible low in the sky as it whizzed up the east coast and I tracked it with a small telescope. I alerted friends in Washington DC and Maine, who also saw it. One launch just after sunset left a large bright cloud high in the sky in the south. It looked like an atomic bomb had gone off at high altitude. The cloud spread out horizontally over the next 45 mins, till it disappeared in darkness. I decided that I was seeing the exhaust from the SRBs in the stratosphere over the launch site. The solid particles weren't evaporating and were high enough to be illuminated by sunlight for 45 mins while I was in darkness below. I later found that the cloud was water vapour from the cryogenic fuel. (links to photos of the cloud, published in newspapers at the time, are now dead.)

9/11 revealed to the world that democracy was too fragile to to stand on its own and needed substantial reinforcement. US citizens gladly pitched in, giving up freedoms guaranteed by their constitution, their critical thinking and accepting security theater ( for threat prevention. No longer could we know the time and orbital parameters (e.g. inclination) of the shuttle launch. I could no longer track the shuttle up the US east coast; the shuttle was now protecting the freedoms of american citizens and no longer exploring space. I again decided that shuttle launches weren't a priority.

3. 2nd Attempt (scrubbed)

NASA eventually started releasing shuttle launch times again. Happily the Surge ( must have worked and I started thinking about watching evening high inclination launches again from North Carolina. Then out of the blue, as the result of the first scrubbing of STS-134, a co-worker offered me his tickets, to see the launch from Kennedy Space Center. I remembered back to the first description of a shuttle launch 30yrs ago and realised that the shuttle has been going up since the last return of Halley's comet and I still hadn't seen any sort of launch, much less a shuttle launch. My coworker had bought the maximum number of tickets (6 tickets; 4 adult, 2 children, with 2 car passes). Knowing scads of people interested in the shuttle and space exploration, I snapped up the lot (about $250) on the spot.

Without looking into it further, I'd naively assumed because NASA was organising it, that KSC was the el primo spot for viewing the launch. This purchase plunged me into a month long world of NASA disinformation, resulting in two more trips to Florida without seeing a launch, even when there was a launch.

If after reading this, you still want to see a shuttle launch from KSC, buy all adult tickets; they're only $5 more than the children's tickets. In the grand scheme of a trip to FL, the extra money is chump change, but you'll have an easier time offloading adult tickets, if you can't make the rescheduled date following a scrub.

My co-worker handled the first part, the multistep process of buying the tickets. In the last step, you sit for several hours with your computer displaying "it's not your turn yet", till suddenly you get a message saying you have to buy your tickets right now or loose them. You can't leave to take a bathroom break or you'll miss your turn. Males over 60 are selected out here. In the rest of the world, computer technology is sufficiently advanced that a person with a life, or prior commitments (e.g. a teacher) could be given a day to buy the tickets.

  • The tickets are non-transferable: How would NASA know I wasn't the original purchaser? Were the tickets biometrically marked with my coworker's DNA? Would I (and my 5 friends) arrive at KSC after waiting for 30yrs to see a shuttle launch, to be turned away at the gate, with our tails between our legs, exposed for all to see, blattantly transferring tickets and having the hubris to think we could fool the NASA ticket inspectors? (who probably have PhDs - see Career Guide for Engineers and Computer Scientists and PhD Expunging

    My coworker gave me the details of the purchase, including the last 4 digits of the credit card used, so I could prove I was him. Maybe it was to prevent scalping: on launch day, was KSC like a rock concert or gladiator sport venue, with scalpers hawking their wares, while unticketed people, on their last chance to see a launch, desperately held up cardboard signs saying "NEED TICKETS!".

  • when to arrive: This is serious business. The parking permit tells you that you absolutely must arrive at the gate by the appointed time, while the ticket says you cannot arrive at the gate before the appointed time (yes you read that right). Your arrival time is on a special sticker on your parking permit. The parking permit is US letter size and for checking is to be left under the windshield of your car during your stay at KSC. You better get it right. My arrival time was 4hrs before launch. Why? What are you going to do for 4hrs? Sit in the sun and humidity of Cape Canaveral? Were we all arriving at the same time? Were the times staggered to help parking?

    After arriving at the correct time, you will be inspected for weapons. You can bring in collapsible chairs but not folding chairs, soft sided coolers but not hard sided coolers. You can bring a telescope and cameras (including monstrous telephoto lenses). I wondered what sort of mayhem space enthusiasts had inflicted on their hapless shuttle launch compatriots with hard sided coolers, but that couldn't occur with telescopes and cameras. A friend straightened me out: hard sided coolers were a threat to the food franchisees at KSC (you aren't allowed to bring in a grill either). It was all making sense, but I would sorely miss my grill for the 4 hours.

    You have to plan for the 2hr traffic jam on the four lane road getting out of KSC after launch. There are supposed to be 10,000 people at KSC for the day (I should have checked by counting parking spots when I got there). You're going to be there at least 6hrs. You're advised to wait it out and have a picnic afterwards (one that can survive for 4hrs in a soft sided cooler and doesn't need a grill).

    With the rescheduled launch, when was the new arrival time? Still L-4? My friend from NASA heard it was L-6. In case of a rescheduled launch, the instructions sent you to a webpage for the new details. The webpage had no such information, but as backup, NASA had throughtfully provided a phone number. I dialed to get "there are no announcements, please hang up!". It then hung up on me.

I needed help and found it in How to view and photograph a NASA Space Shuttle Launch By Jeff Ostroff ( There are many viewing locations at Cape Canaveral. The one for the general public is at KSC and is regarded as "steerage class". It's furthest from the launch pad and the view of the launch pad is blocked by trees (you miss out on the first 30secs or more of the flight, but I didn't know this yet). I hadn't been to KSC for 10yrs and all I could remember was cement, sedge and grass to the horizon and was surprised to hear about the trees. Why view the launch where you can't see it? Because no-one knows about the trees before they arrive, because NASA isn't telling, and because people will naively buy the tickets expecting NASA to delivery a working product (this is how an innovation driven economy works).

Select public see a clear view of the launch from a causeway closer to the launch site (this is not the causeway on Rte A1A 20 miles further south, that I used for my 1st attempt). A friend, who works at NASA, sees the launch from there (is he the "public"? yes, for the right definition of "public").

I found out why you have to arrive early. The people going to the causeway have to be on the causeway (and under control) before it's safe to let the astronauts board the shuttle. Presumably the causeway goers can't leave from KSC (in buses) till the regular KSC people are inspected for weapons. It was all becoming clear. Were the NASA people carrying automatic weapons? Has a causeway goer attempted to take out an astronaut on an earlier launch? These are things you have to plan for in a market economy.

I had misjudged my friends' interest in seeing a shuttle launch. I had flexible work hours, but found that everyone else had more important or pressing things to do during the day. Two friends had family weddings that they couldn't get out of. They weren't happy about the weddings even before I told them about the shuttle. Others had to give exams or had prior commitments. With the record of shuttle launch delays, some weren't prepared to take the time off, and buy a plane ticket, just to spent the day in the sun at KSC. My son had exams, his friend had a prom. I asked my amateur radio and amateur astronomy friends, and posted to a local computer mailing list, but still had one untaken ticket when I left. It was a sad commentary on our freedom to have a bit of fun now and again. But that's why we have the most innovative economy in the world. A family met me down there and made a long weekend of it, taking the kids to an amusement park in Orlando the day after the launch, increasing the GNP.

I drove down from North Carolina, stayed at the RedRoof Inn near at the Orlando convention center ($50, recommended, had wifi and was quiet) and ate dinner at one of the many restaurants there (Sweet Basil Thai Restaurant, perfect for a person who stays at $50 motels). I was heartened to see people walking around on the footpaths in the evening at the convention center, something I rarely see in USA. They still have streets with bumper-to-bumper cars moving at less than walking pace through the convention area, so they don't get it yet, but even so, seeing people walking around was a pleasant surprise.

I planned to arrive early, about L-6. Some webpage said that the displays at KSC had been improved and there were lots of new things for the kids to do. Hopefully I could spend the 6 hours learning about the space program.

I met my friend the next morning and we headed off to KSC via the toll road 528. The toll booths are close enough that you barely get upto speed before encountering the next one. Elsewhere, a ticket booth at the beginning allows you to pay once, at the end.

Exiting the toll road, we ran into a 1hr traffic jam on a 4-lane road (2 lanes each way, only our way was jammed). I sat next to a sign saying "KSC 7 miles". I was almost there. What was the problem? In two trips, I never found out. Apparently this is normal for launch day. The parking lot at KSC is no bigger than a medium sized suburban mall's. I expect you could empty or fill one of those in an hour with a 2 lane road while traffic moved continuously.

At 6.5miles we reached the Astronaut Hall of Fame. This is the start of the Cape Canaveral complex. NASA employees at barriers glanced through windshields, checked our parking permits and waved us on. This wasn't the bottleneck then. Looking in the windows of adjacent cars I noticed many different colored parking permits. How many different types of parking spots can there be? How about one for people going on to the causeway and one for people staying at KSC? I never found out what the rest of the colors were about. A few 100yds back, an entrepreneur with a piece of hillside properly was allowing parking for some minimal sum. Quite a few people were sitting in chairs waiting. I wondered how good the view was; you could see across the water to all the gantries and I wondered which had the shuttle. I knew the shuttle's gantry was hidden by trees from KSC.

Next you cross a drawbridge onto the island. The drawbridge was up, backing up an hour of cars. There was no boat on the water high enough to need a raised bridge. In any case why is the bridge open on a launch day; just tell the boating enthusiasts to come back tomorrow. Was this NASA's way of showing us that they could stop us getting to KSC before L-4 (or whatever was the secret arrival time)? I saw dolphins in the water while I was waiting, which was nice.

We arrived at KSC to have parking attendants direct us slowly in single file to consecutive parking spots (rather than letting us spread out quickly to the thousands of empty parking spots). This was a crowd of technical enthusiasts who hope that the exploration of space will lead to a better world, but we can't park ourselves, a task handled with ease by the average mall goer. Automatic elevator operators anyone? How are we ever going to make it to Mars?

A friendly looking 12' alligator was lying in one of the drainage ditches between banks of the parking lot. Just the eyes and nostrils were showing above water. I understand they move very fast when they want to. A nice touch welcoming us to Florida.

Your ticket is checked by a barcode reader, then you go through weapons/folding chair/grill/hard cooler inspection. I had a small backpack, with a book, binoculars in a soft case and a gps receiver in a small bag. I had to open my cell phone pouch on my belt, to show that it wasn't a gun, but the binocular case and gps case, both of which could have held a hand gun, were waved through.

With 6hrs to go, I looked at the displays. You know that new improved KSC with lots of things for the kids to do? It's the same old KSC with lots of things for the kids to do. There were few school kids; most kids were under 5yrs old. I guess kids have to work during the week. There are rides for the kids; e.g. a simulated shuttle launch where you're strapped down and jostled while shuttle engine noises deafen you. KSC is about amusement and entertainment, but not education, ennoblement of the spirit based on recognition of the great accomplishments of the space age, or a vision of a better world through rational thought. If you want any of the latter, stay at home and look at the writeups of the various space probes in wikipedia.

I'd assumed the cost of the tickets (about $50 for adults) was a special charge to get in on launch day. From the booths at the gates, this is the standard fee to get in. Presumably on launch day, everyone else is excluded and we're paying the normal fee. You couldn't pay me to go inside this place. Save your money and see it instead at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.

The next problem was where to view the launch. I thought this would be trivial, but didn't find the solution in time to use it. There were trees everywhere and the shuttle was not to be seen. From maps, I knew the approximate direction of the gantry from KSC (NE), but not accurately enough to get the shuttle between trees. I asked a few NASA employees where the shuttle gantry was. They all gave the same story: they'd seen all the launches, but didn't know where the shuttle was, waving their arms in a 45 arc. They weren't telling. There should be markers all over KSC pointing to the launch pad. It's not like it moves around a whole lot.

On a grassy spot shaded by a building, a stage with a NASA employee fed the crowd technical pablum. Next to him was a large outdoor LED TV screen switching between shots of the shuttle and various activities at the launch pad. Signs nearby pointed to the area on the grass with the supposed best viewing. From the indicated area, the building and a set of trees were in direct line to the shuttle. I couldn't believe you were going to see anything from here. A NASA employee assured me that I'd get a good view (note: not the best view) from here despite the intervening building.

As soon as the shuttle lifted off, it would roll over and since it was going to the ISS on an inclination of 56.1 it would head north east directly away from us. You are supposed to be able to see SRB separation 2 mins into the flight. This occurs 35miles down range at an altitude of 177,000' (see STS-132 SRB separation giving an elevation for SRB separation of about 45 which was well above the trees. However the initial part of the flight, when the shuttle was closest, would be hidden by trees. At least the sky was clear with no humidity haze, so we'd see the shuttle clearly at high elevation and should be able to see SRB separation.

I walked around KSC a few times, not finding any place that was any better treewise than any other. There were a bunch of people packed up against the entrance to KSC away from the buildings. I didn't know what to make of this, but after my 3rd attempt, I think this is probably the best spot at KSC (I haven't seen a launch yet remember, so I don't know).

I had a question. Clearly I was wasting my time with the employees who'd seen every launch. To my absolute joy, the guy spouting pablum and bromides knew all about it:

once the external fuel tank drops away, what gets the shuttle into orbit? I only knew of the 3 large engines. Did the shuttle store cryogenic fuel? It was hard to imagine.

The shuttle carries 2000lb of hypergolic fuel, some in the nose and some in the two pods on either side of the vertical stabiliser. The hypergolic fuel requires its own engines and these are also in the same pods. These two engines and their fuel are called the Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) and are also used to de-orbit the shuttle.

There you go. I've wanted to know this for years. My next question is why does the shuttle take a further 2 days to dock with the ISS? The Hohmann minimum energy (i.e. minimum fuel) transfer path ( would only take about 45mins. (I didn't think of this for several weeks after I was back in North Carolina.)

I bought some souvenirs; Lego shuttles and jig-saw puzzles for my coworker's kids; a few posters for myself (of the ISS taken from the shuttle and the famous Earthrise photo taken by Apollo 8, whose provenance was discovered by Bob Zimmerman, in Genesis ( and a half doz. bars of Mercury Chocolate for all and sundry. The chocolate wrapper bore the astronomical symbol for Mercury (see symbols for the solar system, which I thought was a nice touch (where was this person when they were writing the display for slide rules?), and the photo of John Glenn being launched into space ( (from Mercury-Atlas 6

At about L-4, my explorations for viewing sites were extinguished when the launch was scrubbed. There had been a failure in the auxilliary power unit (APU) with the next possible launch in 48hrs. I didn't even know what the auxilliary power unit was. I phoned a friend. It would take 6-8hrs to replace the APU followed by testing; i.e. they could launch in 48hrs. If I left now, I'd be home the same day, shortening my trip by a day. I had considered staying if the launch was delayed by a day or two, but I didn't have much confidence that they'd fix it in 48hrs.

What I didn't know was that first the fuel tanks had to be drained (12hrs) and later refilled (12hrs) (you can't work on a fuelled shuttle). How do they expect to get to Mars if problems like this require major repairs on the ground. It took 2 weeks to repair that APU. Another friend said that with the shuttle program closing down, they'd laid off so many people that there was no-one left to fix the shuttle. I'm sure the cost of the launch delay far outweighed the salaries of the laid off technicians, but that cost would be coming out of someone else's budget. It's this sort of creative accounting that made this country such a financial power house upto 2008. Then socialism for the rich lead to bailouts of the banks, while the people lost their jobs and homes (they never had health insurance, so didn't loose it).

People slowly left KSC; most seemed to be staying for the afternoon. There wouldn't be any traffic jam; cars were coming out of the parking lot in ones and twos. After about an hour I left, was led through the difficult task of exiting the parking lot, by a series of helpful NASA employees and turned out of the parking lot into a 1hr traffic jam on a 4 lane road. The draw bridge was down so that wasn't the problem. I finally reached Rte 1 and turned north driving through Titusville, one of my alternate viewing spots from attempt 1. You're about 20miles from the shuttle launch pad and can see all the gantries. Rte 1 ran along the shore and every parking spot and side road was packed with shuttle watchers. Residents were charging $10-25 for parking (and presumably using restrooms), which I didn't think was all that odious.

The papers reported that 500,000 people were there to watch the shuttle launch (and I was priviledged to be one of 10,000 at KSC). I'd assumed this was 500,000 visitors. The traffic on Rte 1 through Titusville was moving at normal pace. If a small fraction of 10,000 people at KSC were blocking a 4 lane road leading out of KSC, then there were a lot less than 10,000 extra people in Titusville that day. Many of the people on the side of the road could have been locals. Maybe 500,000 if you count all the people at work and home to the viewable horizon from 177,000' (about 500miles), but there were a lot less than 100,000 visitors for the launch. Driving through Titusville, the paper's announcement that "500,000 comrades today joyously stopped their labors to join in celebrating the motherland's technical superiority" was disengenuous.

4. 3rd Attempt (hidden by trees)

The 3rd attempt at launching STS-134 was at 0856 local time on a monday morning. I had no more information about the required arrival time than I did for my 2nd attempt. If admission to KSC started at L-6, I'd have to be at the gates at 3am and leave my motel by midnight. There was no point in staying in a motel; I would see if I could spend the night in my car at the parking lot. I appeared the evening before at 6pm, to check out arrangements for the next morning. All NASA employees had the same story

  • Opening time was 1am (L-8) at the barriers at the Astronaut Hall of Fame (i.e. back 6.5miles to the Astronaut Hall of Fame). If I arrived early, there wasn't enough room to pull to the side of the road and I would be turned back. Don't even think of coming early.
  • I couldn't spend the night in my car in the KSC parking lot. The parking lot would be closed and swept clean (of cars). No-one would be allowed overnight on the complex (anywhere this side of the Astronaut Hall of Fame) i.e. I couldn't park on a side road a mile away from KSC till opening time. Apparently the whole island (100 square miles or so) would be swept clean of unwanted people and cars before they'd open the barriers at 1am. They were running a tight ship.

Not wanting to make the launch any more difficult, I went back past the Astronaut Hall of Fame and looked for places where I could park till 1am, where I wouldn't bother anyone.

This being America, I never forget that I could be shot, mugged or rolled at any moment. It's what you get with a vibrant economy of entrepreneurs and individualists. Being alone, I needed a spot where I was also visible from the road. In Australia, when I was there, if you're tired at night, you were encouraged to pull over a sleep by the side of the road. I've spent many nights, in my sleeping bag by my car, having pulled over at 1am and slept till dawn. In USA you are specifically not allowed to sleep in rest stops, keeping dangerously tired people on the road, when they should have taken a 1hr nap long ago. You're supposed to go to a motel for the night, when you only need a 1hr nap, but that's what the govt is for - to keep the wheels of the vibrant economy running. In USA, I've had irate farmers kick me off country roads, when I tried to have a snooze there.

In daylight, I pulled into the first place beyond the Astronaut Hall of Fame, the Warbird Museum. The parking lot was empty, so I would have a quiet night, while the road out front kept me in public view.

The Warbird Museum was small (I assume it's privately run) with two beat up planes out front. There didn't look to be room for even two planes inside the museum. One of the outside exhibits was a Mohawk, which didn't have its propellors (the exhibit was just a shell). The plane looked sort of familiar; it was from the Vietnam War era. The description, having fallen off its mounts to the ground, celebrated the virtues of the plane as an agent of death. The Vietnamese who (supposedly) called it the "whispering death". It's 35yrs later and Americans still don't know that the slaughter in Vietnam and deformities caused by agent orange is not regarded as a step forward for freedom for oppressed people. As Europe found out (eventually), you still live next to and have to trade with the people who you fought in the last war. Agents of death should not be celebrated. Non-violent methods e.g. those of The Albert Einstein Institute have been proven more effective, as has been shown by recent events in Tunisia and Egypt (and unfortunate counter example of the failure of violent methods to liberate the people of Libya). On my return to N. Carolina, I remembered this plane from my time in the RAAF (1966-8). The propellors both turned the same way and so the plane had a preferred direction of turn. The Vietnamese would put a decoy truck in a valley, the Mohawk would spot it and then pull out, turning in the preferred direction, into the face of a waiting anti-aircraft gun. This had been left off the description. Does the museum want only the Vietnamese and foreigners to know about the design flaws?

No-one came past the Museum in an hour and I decided it was a little too quiet for me. If the Warbird Museum owner came past, my presence would be obvious. Maybe he wouldn't be happy about me using his Museum as a parking spot till 1am and I wasn't interested in convincing him otherwise.

I moved down the road to the Titusville general aviation airport. Military helicopters and light planes were parked at the terminal, along with about 20 cars. I pulled in and read a book ("Applied Cryptography", Bruce Schneier) and pretended to wait for a friend arriving on a Lear Jet. Light planes, short hop commercial jets and private jets arrived every 15mins or so. The passengers disembarking from private jets talked loudly and took a long time to depart from the airport. I wasn't going to get any sleep here. About 10pm one of the helicopters fired up and did slow passes of the length of the runway about 10' off the ground. I assume someone was keeping current with their night low flying hours. I was definitely not going to get any sleep here. I moved to one of the well lit industrial parking lots with plenty of cars and work vehicles about half a mile away. I parked under a high pressure sodium light (allowing me to read without a flashlight). My car was easily visible from the road. I couldn't imagine any locals looking to roll a shuttle tourist, expecting to find one here. The helicopter moved off the runway, commencing loops of the airport, passing directly over me. I lay in the back of my station wagon and resigned myself to getting in some reading.

A little before midnight I decided to head off to the barriers at the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Maybe they'd let me in early, or at least park on the side of the road for an hour along with other shuttle enthusiasts. Just then a car pulled into the parking lot and out stepped two young women, one in a party dress. They set up a camera on a tripod in the middle of the parking lot and while one stood by and watched, the one in the party dress would activate the time action on the camera, run to a spot for a pose, and then return to inspect the photo. They weren't using a flash - the color balance and the shadows would all be wrong. I had no idea that people took photos of themselves in party dresses, at midnight, on sunday night, in an industrial parking lot, without a flash, but then I've lead a sheltered life. I was trapped; I couldn't leave without alerting them that I'd seen them. I thought it best just to lie low and wait till they left. The woman in the party dress posed on all sorts of places; select spots in the industrial parking lot, in the car, on the car roof, on the car hood, standing on the rear bumper. How many photos to you need of yourself in a parking lot? It took 45mins before they finally finished and I left before they could come back.

I got to the Astronaut Hall of Fame at 0030, to find no barriers and no NASA employees. They were letting allcomers onto the complex - security had gone to hell. I drove without restriction to KSC and was assisted to park without checking my parking permit. I could have been Osama bin Laden. The parking lot was a quarter full. Some people must have arrived a while ago. Presumably I could have spent the whole night in the parking lot. A line of people carrying babies, with strollers, cameras and tripods, soft sided coolers and collapsible chairs wound almost around the parking lot. They looked like refugees trying to board the train in "Casablanca". I asked a NASA parking attendant what was going on.

"They're opening the doors in a few minutes" (as if I'd arrived from another planet)

"What doors? When?"

"They're opening the gates at 1am"

Some time in the last 6hrs, the 1am barrier opening had shifted 6.5 miles from the Astronaut Hall of Fame to the barcode readers at KSC, and I didn't know, despite reasonable efforts on my part to find out.

Why were these people standing in the damp and dark with 8.5hrs to go till launch? There was plenty of room on the grass inside and they were only going to be 100yrd closer to the shuttle. If worst came to worst, and they couldn't get through the gates in time, they could see the launch from the parking lot.

As I was to find out next morning, I was a lot closer to the truth than I knew. From the parking lot, the trees are further away - it was the best spot at KSC to see the launch.

Why didn't these people sleep in their cars till 7am and then go inside? Maybe their cars weren't designed for sleeping. I looked around - about a quarter of the cars were SUVs. You can sleep in an SUV. OK then, why don't people buy useful cars? How will we ever get to Mars if people will stand in line at night to spend 8hrs inside KSC, when they can get a good night's sleep in their cars and go to exactly the same spot the next morning? I crawled into the back of my station wagon and prepared for a night's sleep. The people in the next car came back 3 times through the night; they woke up the baby and poked it till it cried continuously, then shooshed it, and then opened and shut the doors and trunk, till they were exhausted. The woman who spoke spanish, talked a continuous tongue lashing 500wpm, while no-one else said a word. I didn't get to sleep till 2am. We aren't going to Mars (the Chinese will get there first).

After a short night's sleep, I awoke at 7am to see the just risen sun. The parking lot held only empty cars with unfogged windshields; I was the only one who'd spent the night in a car. After passing through the hard-sided cooler/folding chair inspection, I walked through to the grassy area inside KSC to find a docile and dazed crowd. They looked like they'd spent the night at the airport (see Americans enjoying thanksgiving tradition of sitting around at airports,14188/)

I looked again for good spots to view the launch, and picked what I thought was the least worst. We had an 80% low cloud cover. We wouldn't see the low elevation part of the flight. At the appointed time, I heard a short applause and then silence from the people watching the large screen monitor behind the building and I scanned the trees for the shuttle. I saw an orange ball start to rise through an 80% dense tree, and watched it with my binoculars till it disappeared about 2/3 the way up the tree never to reappear. I tracked the expected path of the shuttle till my binoculars saw only cloud. The shuttle had disappeared into cloud before it cleared the trees. A little later I heard the delayed sound of the engines. I was hearing the shuttle, but not seeing it. I heard the distinctive crackle of the engines but didn't feel it in my chest like you do at the IMAX.

The people were silent. There were no chears, whistles or applause.

We'd been had: every NASA person there knew with the low cloud that none of us would see the launch.

I moved around till I saw the column of smoke between a pair of trees. The few people here saw the shuttle. I ran around KSC looking for places where the smoke was visible. I only found the front corner near the main road (which was packed with people, who presumably were better in the know than I) and the parking lot. With half an hour to go and low clouds, the NASA people should have directed us back to the parking lot or out onto the main road.

On watching the launch reruns on youtube later at home, I found that the shuttle entered the clouds at about L+30sec. Presumably then, this occured when the shuttle was 2/3 the way up the trees. At my location then, the first 45secs of the flight was blocked by trees. With only 2mins to SRB separation, at KSC you're missing out on almost the first half the flight, the closest half where the eyes are most useful.

I left without the expected traffic jam, and headed up Rte 1 through Titusville where the number of people watching were half the number seen in the previous trip. The NYT times still reported that 500,000 people watched the launch. It must be the number of people living in the area.

At no stage in my attempts to see the launch did NASA attempt to give useful or correct information about the launch. I was treated with contempt for both my technical interest and for the commercial transaction delivering a defective product. NASA acts with impunity. No-one was jailed as a result of the Challenger explosion. The only person to loose his job was an engineer at Morton-Thiokol, who voted against launch and had the temerity to say so publically afterwards. He was run out of the company town by the upstanding burghers for besmirching the good name of the company. (Here's the NYT obituary of the engineer Roger Boisjoly . A slightly more detailed obit is at Roger Boisjoly, L.A. Times,0,2248999.story) We are no more valued than the astronauts who've died unneccessarily in the time since our society started to explore space.

5. Conclusion

There's not a lot of information about good places to see the shuttle launch in person. I expect there aren't good places, just least worst places. You'll have to find the best location yourself, probably by going down personally and tolerating a few sacrificial trips where you wind up at bad spots. Plan it like you're going bird watching. Maybe you'll see your special bird, maybe you won't. Decide whether you want to be there, in which case you won't get a good view, or whether you want to see it, in which case you see it from home.

Wait till NASA treats the citizens with respect. Let them build a parking lot from which people can watch launches and we can have a Burning Man Festival for technical people at Cape Canaveral.

6. Postscript

After posting this page, a friend thanked me for stimulating the economy (next time I'll take the door with the big screen LCD monitor) and sent me his webpage The Final Flight of Atlantis ( and Alan's Space Shuttle launch photos ( I didn't know there were informative tours of the Vehicle Assembly Building and launch pad, the Saturn V building (which I had no idea still existed) or the International Space Station processing building. I'm sorry I missed them. I was overwhelmed with the BS and mediocrity when I arrived at KSC and ignored invitations to spend money on anything, particularly a tour.

Another friend suggested I sit offshore in a boat (if the Coast Guard didn't sink me).

Another friend sent this photo of the launch as seen from above the clouds (

The views of the people at the causeway weren't blocked by trees. They could see the shuttle at the gantry and through binoculars could see the astronauts crossing the bridge to the shuttle (at least by seeing the lights on the bridge winking on and off). They saw the shuttle lift off and go into the clouds.

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