Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Spectacular Spacey Independence Days

"I Need My Space" - Awaiting the scrubbed space shuttle launch on July 1, 2006

The most space-intensive summers I ever had were my two NASA Academy summers, as an intern in 2005 and a co-leader in 2006. Those two summers produced awesome and awe-inspiring space memories and two memorable Independence Days. Traditional fireworks aren’t the only things that flash, burn, and bang!

In 2005, my NASA cohort of interns based at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama traveled to the Washington, DC area for tours of NASA Headquarters, Goddard Space Flight Center, and the University of Maryland. We also hit up various monuments, the zoo, and museums such as both Smithsonian Air & Space locations while we were there.

Late evening July 3, 2005, our group gathered at a University of Maryland auditorium with other students and invited guests. We heard a talk by University of Maryland professor and NASA Deep Impact mission PI Michael A'Hearn and a few other scientists on the team. We crashed the VIP section of the auditorium to fill up on snacks and grab free mission swag (pins, posters, etc.).

At 1:45 AM on July 4, three large screens showed a live view of the Deep Impact probe approaching comet Tempel 1. We could see the comet clearly. As the minutes went by, we could see craters getting larger as the impactor got closer. Finally the images stopped coming. Cheers erupted from the team at JPL in California. Finally, we could see why. The bottom of the comet had been smashed! A bright flash could be seen from where the impactor had hit, and the images that followed showed the flash growing larger and brighter. It was a spectacular Independence Day explosion, even better than the fireworks we watched at the National Mall later that day.

Americans smacking into a comet on July 4, 2005.

I was a student at Florida Institute of Technology on the Space Coast when the Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed upon returning to land at Kennedy Space Center in 2003. We were all devastated. The space shuttles were grounded for two and a half years. Finally, in July 2005, Space Shuttle Discovery launched its return-to-flight mission. Our NASA Academy group was able to witness that spectacular piece of history from the VIP bleachers at Kennedy Space Center.

However, all was not well with the shuttle program, and the space vehicles were grounded for another year. My NASA Academy team in 2006 was able to travel to Kennedy Space Center in July 2006 to see the second Space Shuttle Discovery return-to-flight launch on July 4.

We spent much of that day having fun at the KSC Visitor Complex, which I highly recommend. As launch time approached, used our free-access passes to drive to the Vehicle Assembly Building. Some of our team watched from the ground around the VAB. I followed a few others to climb an unused mobile launch platform to get a view above the trees. Of all the spots I’ve seen a launch, it was one of the best views!

At T-4 minutes, a security guard climbed the mobile launch platform, and there was a collective gasp. “You all have to go,” he said. I stared in shocked disbelief until he said, “Just kidding!” and joined us. From then on, I was in a world of happiness and awe. Apparently some people were chanting the countdown, but I couldn’t hear them. I was in my own world where only me and Discovery existed.

A rocket ignition is the best type of firework there is!

My view of the Space Shuttle Discovery launch from atop the treeline on July 4, 2006.

Although we’ve been waiting patiently the past two days for the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of Intelsat 35e, we will not get a rocket launch firework display tonight. But here’s to hoping for a future SpaceX launch success and future spacey Independence Days to come!