Monday, May 11, 2009

Launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis for Last Mission to Hubble

We went to Kennedy Space Center to see the launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis for mission STS-125. It will be the last servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope and the last flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis. It is a dangerous mission. The Hubble's maximum orbit is 350 miles above the Earth. Atlantis will have used up about half of its fuel just to reach orbit. This altitude is where most other satellites are located, and there is a lot of space junk to contend with that could potentially damage the space shuttle. The International Space Station is at a lower orbit and would be out of reach as a safe haven in case of an emergency. Space Shuttle Endeavour is staged on the second launch pad as a rescue mission if necessary.

Space Shuttle Endeavor is on the left and Space Shuttle Atlantis is on the right.

A model showing Shuttle Atlantis servicing the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Hubble will be captured by Shuttle Atlantis and serviced on a platform in the space shuttle's payload area. This servicing mission will bring repairs and new instruments to the telescope to allow the Hubble to function through the year 2014.

The launch of mission STS-125 has been rescheduled several times since last fall. Part of the Hubble's 18 year-old communications equipment failed shortly before the mission launch in October 2008. Rather than service an instrument that might fail to communicate with scientists on Earth, the mission was changed to include upgrades and back-ups for communications.

The tickets for the launch were sold out months ago and security was only allowing ticket holders' cars to pass through to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. We arrived around 10am and there were long lines of people waiting to get in. Once inside we immediately encountered another long line of people waiting to board the buses to the launch viewing area. At past launch viewing events people took time to look around KSC. This group was ready to get right to it.

This is the special viewing area on the NASA Causeway. It is about 6 miles from the space shuttle launch pads.

Our view of Atlantis on the launchpad across the Banana River.

We waited for hours, but the time seemed to pass quickly. Merritt Island is also a nature preserve. We saw all kinds of interesting birds, jumping fish and occasionally dolphins. People had all kinds of viewing equipment and we took turns looking through one another's lenses. We met an astronomer who has worked with images from the Hubble for years. The rocket launch area is nearby and we saw a rocket inside one of the towers. The next rocket launch in June will send a lunar orbiter to scout for landing sites on the moon, and a probe to look for possible ice formations at lunar locations that are in constant darkness.

After much anticipation the countdown began. Everyone stood up to cheer and count down. 5...4...3...2...1...

Lift off!

The space shuttle is moving so fast that the sound from lift-off isn't heard until it's in the air. It starts out as a crackling sound.

Then it builds up to a roar that you can feel.

Everyone watches as the space shuttle climbs higher into the sky. It's an amazing sight!

More photos of our trip to see the launch of STS-125 Space Shuttle Atlantis

Video of the launch of STS-125 Space Shuttle Atlantis

Turn up your speakers.

Travel Recommendations

It is great to have a Sunpass for this trip in particular, because you can drive through the tolls and pay electronically instead of having to stop to pay cash. The Sunpass is a fantastic time saver when all the toll booths are backed up after shuttle launches. I highly recommend avoiding the Bee Line Expressway (FL-528) after a shuttle launch. The toll booths back up for miles and there are no rest areas between Titusville and Orlando.

Road Directions to Gulf Coast After Shuttle Launch

To drive home to Tampa after a shuttle launch we go north of Titusville taking either U.S. Route 1 or I-95 north to SR-46 to drive east towards Sanford. Near Geneva take Oviedo Road (SR- 426) south to FL-417 south. FL-417 is a toll road that takes you around Orlando and ends directly at I-4 near Disney. I-4 continous west to I-75 and the Gulf Coast.

Visiting Kennedy Space Center

The best time to visit Kennedy Space Center is on a non-shuttle-launch-day. Traffic is usually no problem in and out of Titusville. If you want to Mapquest the Kennedy Space Center, look up Orsino, Florida.

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