Thursday, December 07, 2006

STS-116 Space Shuttle Discovery

Back in the day, when we lived in the country, we sat by the lake and watched the space shuttle take off. While daytime launches are amazing, nighttime launches are awesome. An artificial sunrise glows on the horizon, as the biggest firework ever arches through the sky. And that’s from 100 miles away.

NASA plans to launch the space shuttle Discovery tonight around 9:30pm. The best seats are at Kennedy Space Center (it’s too late to get tickets for today, but here’s where to get them for the next launch). Along the Indian River in Titusville and along the Atlantic Ocean in Cocoa Beach are also popular viewing spots. I’ll be watching from Tampa. (You can see daytime launches from here as well.) The launch isn’t as impressive without the earth-rumbling sound, but just think about that for a minute – unless it’s a cloudy sky, I should be able to see it in Tampa. All the way across the state. Isn’t that just a little scary?

The launch coverage page has extensive information on mission STS-116, including a link to the launch blog, where starting at 3:30pm Dec. 7, you should be able to find live coverage.

The shuttle program, and the space program in general, is of national and even international importance. However, this is also a significant part of Florida’s history, events that transformed the quiet, citrus groves of Brevard County into the booming Space Coast. To learn more about that transformation, read William B. Faherty’s book Florida’s Space Coast: The Impact of NASA on the Sunshine State (University Press of Florida, 2002).

Of course, being in Florida, the Kennedy Space Center's visitor center has a theme-park atmosphere, boasting a two-story gift shop, IMAX theater, and an interactive Astronaut Training Experience. Instead of Breakfast with Mickey, there are Astronaut Encounters. Bus tours take you near the shuttle launch pads or to the historic moon mission launch pads. It is an interesting short weekend getaway for families with children 8 and up (younger ones might get bored).

Trivia for the Day: The first nighttime shuttle launch was August 30, 1983, when Challenger lifted off for Mission STS-8. On board was astronaut Guy Bluford, the first African American in space.


Update: After the launch was scrubbed Thursday night, Saturday night's attempt went off beautifully. From Tampa, the sky glowed orange and yellow on the horizon, then a small orange comet rose into the sky. With binoculars, I saw what looked like the boosters separating and falling away.

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