beamjockey (beamjockey) wrote,

The Higgins Brothers Discover Atlantis

Waiting for Discovery to launch tonight reminds me that, in 1991, my brother and I watched a night launch of Atlantis. Both of us were citizens of cyberspace in those days, and we collaborated on a joint account of the launch.


MELBOURNE, NOV 24-- Ya know, who cares about colonization of space?  A
night-time shuttle launch  is a good enough fireworks show to make the
billions of dollars  all worthwhile.

Although the Higgins boys had grown up in Miami, we had never managed
to witness a rocket launch.  Last year our parents retired to
Melbourne, about 25 miles south of Kennedy Space Center, and tonight
we got our chance to watch *Atlantis* lift off with the DSP
missile-warning satellite and its IUS transfer rocket (hi, Eddie!)
aboard. Our plan was to take U.S. 1 north to the coastal area of
Titusville, west of Merritt Island and about as close to Complex 39A
as you can get without being on the KSC grounds.

Following the advice Andre Willey (andre@OBSOLETE_ADDRESS) posted
last June, we timed our arrival for about two hours before launch
time.  Traffic was light, and we saw only a few concentrations of
parked vehicles, so we kept pressing northward even after the Vertical
Assembly Building lay due east of us.  We found an ideal observing
point at Browning Park, just south of the McDonald's where Andre
parked and just north of the intersection with Route 406.  Parking is
not allowed at the park itself; a Mr. Frank Kirk (cousin of a former
Florida governor) will allow you to park on land just to the south for
five bucks.  Being rather early-- we probably could have arrived half
an hour or an hour later with no trouble-- we managed to find a free
spot in the lot of a nearby appliance store. (OOH! VCRs on sale for
just $199!)

One big advantage is that the site was close to what passes for
civilization in Titusville. We repaired to Dogs R Us, a
friendly-looking dive directly across from the park. It wasn't clear
whether the name of the restaurant referred to the variety of
frankfurters on the menu, the meat content of the cheeseburgers or the
spandex-clad waitresses.  Well, that's unfair-- we found the
waitresses quite attractive, though the burgers were only adequate. 
An okay way to kill an hour before launch.  

Off we went scouting vantage points clear of trees, RVs and people
taller than we are. (Avoiding tourists with video cameras is an
unreasonable goal.) Clearly you want to get a good sight of the launch
pad, though five seconds after launch the tall people have no
advantage. We scoped up and down the beachfront and settled on a pier
that scored two out of three: no RVs but too many tall people.

Fortunately we had enough time to go souvenir shopping. Among the
parked RVs we found people huckstering mugs, toys, and T-shirts out of
a van.  Bill saw a magnificently colorful beach towel which  pictured a
Shuttle sneaking up on Space Station Fred (a fairly up-to-date version
of the design, too).  It appealed to his fondness for tacky souvenirs.

"Isn't that rather like a velvet painting of Elvis?"  John asked. 

"I'm not interested in Elvis, I'm interested in space stations," Bill
said. A feeble retort.

"So HOWMUCHDAYAWANT for the towel?" Bill asked the hawker. Twenty-two
bucks. Hmm. Elvis goes for less than half that down the road. 

"Offer him fifteen," hissed John.  He took it.  This pleased us so
much that we offered to plug Space  Coast Souvenirs in our report to
the Net, since they do mail orders.  6054 Sisson Rd., Titusville, FL
32780, (800)927-5039.

With about half an hour to go, we wandered back to the park and out
onto the long fishing pier that jutted out into the Indian River. The
night was amazingly clear, with just a wisp of cloud hanging over the
base located about 12 minutes east of us. By this time the sun was
completely down, with search-lights illuminating the launch pad and
the surrounding waters. The crowd was calm, no drunks, lotsa kids and
many, many radios tuned in to local news reports. (Make a note: don't
go without a radio of your own.)

The launch was inevitably delayed. Can't think of one that ever got
off on time in 15 years. The wait was a short one, but long enough to
entertain the crowd with some jokes ("Quiet everyone, or we won't hear
the launch!") Some of the onlookers kept  busy picking the running
lights of helicopters out of the sky. (Almost 20 circling at one
count. Looked suspiciously like UFOs to us.) Bill saw two shooting

Then around 6:50 the countdown slid into the final seconds. At T-minus
eight seconds the engines started to fire up, visible but silent at
our distance. The shuttle spewed huge, flaming clouds as it began to
ease up. Quickly the torch behind *Atlantis* escaped those ground
clouds and began lighting up the sky. At one point, the eastern sky
looked just like sunrise with backlit clouds clearly visible.

The smoke trail was black against a yellow sky.  The yellow faded
gradually to blue as the rocket climbed.  Bill had hit his techie-nerd
stopwatch at liftoff.  After a minute and two seconds, when *Atlantis*
was a bright flare fairly high in the sky, the sound of engine
ignition hit us.  Allowing for main-engine start eight seconds before
liftoff, we figured we were about fourteen miles from Complex 39.  The
sound was surprisingly soft, no louder than a jet going by, and lasted
for many seconds.

As the yellow star dimmed, it moved away from us and stopped rising. 
Eventually it started moving *downward*, even though the radio kept
announcing increasing altitude, as it moved downrange. Could it be
that the planet we were standing on was actually curved? Nah!

After about nine minutes, we lost the descending star in haze about
three degrees above the ocean.  The pier emptied out pretty quickly,
but traffic on U.S. 1 was nasty for at least half an hour after the
launch.  To wait out the traffic, we wandered over to McDonald's for
chocolate milkshakes that were, unexpectedly, much larger than the
ones we get in New York or Chicago.  Disclaimer: This was our night
for junk food.  Our mother is a dietitian, and we usually eat much
better than this.  Really, Mom!

Bill Higgins                        John Higgins                   higgins@OBSOLETE_ADDRESS

The memory is bittersweet, not just because I miss John, but because the reason we were in Florida was for the funeral of our father.
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