Seeing the Space Shuttle Launch

In the summer of 1999, I was a Student Ambassador at the space shuttle launch of STS-93.  I spent many days at the Cape, visiting the area, meeting people and reporting to my web audience of what I saw.  I was fortunate to get a look "behind-the-scenes" of shuttle processing, and to have seen space shuttle Columbia blast off.  Here are some edited excerpts of the field journals that I wrote for NASA Quest of my experiences at the Kennedy Space Center.

~ Stephanie Wong

From the Northernmost Provincial Capital to the Southernmost State

July 17

The initial signs of the Space Coast came as my family was driving to the town of Cocoa when we saw bright floodlights shooting out into the air.  It must have been the shuttle!  Seeing a bit of the exhibits at the KSC Visitor Complex, I was content for now.

Our last little space experience before seeing the "real stuff" was at 4:45 in the morning!  It was then when I woke up in the middle of the night and went outside to see my first launch (no, not the shuttle).  It was actually a Delta II rocket blasting off containing 4 Globalstar satellites.  It was a glow of light that quickly headed off into the night sky.  Of course, it wasn't as spectacular as a close-up shuttle launch, but I was hoping this was a foreshadowing of interesting things to come.

First Impressions of the Kennedy Space Center

July 18

A few days ago, I had a chance to visit the Kennedy Space Visitor Complex.  The shuttle mockup at the entrance to the Center is quite impressive.  Today, I had a chance to go on a public tour of the outer zone of the actual KSC.  There were many tour buses going out to the three stops of the tour that contained movies of the different aspects of human space exploration and neat models of real NASA equipment!

The first stop was the recently-built Observation Gantry.  This was a tall structure (actually way more minute than I expected).  Sabrina [student ambassador], Linda [NASA Quest Space Team Online manager], my dad, and I climbed up the gantry to an amazing view -- the shuttle sitting atop Complex 39-B!  Since all my days in Florida so far, this was the first time I've seen the shuttle.  Along with this part of the tour were viewing opportunities of the enormous shuttle "Crawler".  It was gigantic, but what used to be placed on top of it -- a Saturn V rocket -- was so big that its thrust could equal an atomic bomb!  What truly amazed me, though, was the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building).  The VAB is the largest building in the world by volume and once you see it, you'll see why.  It took millions of pounds of paint [slight exaggeration: the actual amount of paint used was 550 gallons] just to paint the NASA "meatball" logo on it!

After the shuttle tour, we headed off to the Apollo/Saturn V exhibit.  It was this place that made my day!  There are numerous theatres (like Disney World!) that tell each part of the US's journey into space.  The first show recalled the Mercury Program.  Then, there was a film about Apollo 8, the first mission to send humans to the moon.  The theatre was spectacular, with a replica of the Apollo Firing Room.  It showed the countdown of Apollo 8 with sound effects of the ice coming off from the Saturn V.  Everyone looked out at the windows because they thought KSC had a sudden hailstorm!  An Apollo 11 film followed.  That was in a theatre with a mockup of the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) Eagle.  The thing that made me scurry around the building was seeing the full-sized replica of the Saturn V rocket suspended horizontally in the middle of the room.  The enormity... you would think that these things could not support their own weight!  All the well, the Apollo/Saturn V Center is a place where you could spend the whole day!

The last stop was the International Space Station Center.  I entered through the mockup ISS modules.  They are very small!  Even with those cramped conditions, I would not give up the chance to actually live on one for anything.  The mockup included the space toilet, which everyone wonders about.  Then, climbing up some steps, we were lead into the view of the real Space Station Processing Facility.  I have seen shots on webcams of the facility, but it was way better to see it in its full glory (and without the modem lag!).  I recognized the Leonardo and Destiny station modules.  Amazing, all these pieces from around the world will form into this football field-sized structure!

That was the end.  I am really looking forward to what will be happening tomorrow.  One thing that's sticking in my mind like rubber cement are the little Mars rovers on exhibit.  The Mars Exploration Program has always been my area of fancy and seeing the rovers was quite a sight.  I even have my little model of the Sojourner rover safely packed away in my room!

Views, VIPs, and Thrills

July 19

We woke up at 6 in the morning to prepare for our exciting day.  The first thing we did was go get badges to be able to do the webcast in the O&C (Operations and Checkout) Building.  It was a lengthy process, but we got cool picture IDs that allowed us to enter areas regular people couldn't go to!  After that, we had a short tour of the Merritt Island National Refuge and saw different animals and plants.  It was funny because at the same time you saw palm trees you also saw scrub and cacti!  Unfortunately, the manatees were not out at that time [these aquatic creatures didn't like the blazing Floridian sun, either].  However, I was so nervous about the webcast I couldn't really concentrate on seeing anything anyway!

As the webcast rolled on by in the O&C, I felt much better talking on camera.  We (Sabrina, Marissa [student ambassador], and I) had a blast as people sent us a number of questions.  I answered as best as I could and enjoyed seeing our faces on the monitor.  Hi to everyone who sent us questions!

The VIP Tour

At 2 o'clock, I saw many, many people all ready to join the VIP tour.  The group was flooded with many astronauts, like Ken Cockrell!  Most of the people there were women who were invited to join.  This was the beginning of busy festivities for the rest of the day (and night!).


We had a quick tour of the Launch Control Center.  There is more than one main control room, so one LCC was being refurbished at the time.  The one which was in use was filled with all the consoles.  Each console has five people to it who look after a certain system.  There were already a few people working inside the LCC in preparation for the launch.


Once you get inside the VAB, there ain't no saying it's small.  It's huge!  Even the doors of the VAB were beyond comparison.  The inside is full of braces, trusses, and other structures.  In one of the high bays, there was an ET/SRB stack craned high up all ready for orbiter mate.  On the other side of the building sat the first two segments of a booster.  Believe me, just one of these segments is large enough!

Astronaut Joan Higginbotham- She was the first astronaut I met.  Joan said that electrical engineers are the most abundant engineers at the Cape.  She is a new astronaut, waiting for flight assignment and seemed very energetic.


The best part of the facilities tour was the Orbiter Processing Facility.  Inside was the orbiter Atlantis in its full glory.  The VIPs were separated into small groups and went around the processing bay.  We got to climb the service stairs to look at Atlantis, many parts sometimes less than an armlength away.  I walked under the orbiter and I could see the scorch marks of the black tiles from thousands of degrees of heat.  I even touched one of the wheels!  To give you a perspective, the wheel was almost my height in diameter.  That's about five feet!  Towards the aft of the shuttle were the openings where the three main engines would go.  Just massive!  The next part was the nose of the orbiter with the many windows covered. Then, a United Space Alliance (USA) engineer opened a hatch and we could see right inside of the payload bay.  It contained some sort of payload.  With many ambitious ladies in the tour around, the engineer gave some of us cloth gloves to actually touch Atlantis' tiles!  I can say that I have touched the space shuttle!

USA Engineers- I asked two engineers some questions.  I learned that the RMS (Remote Manipulator System, aka. robot arm) is not taken out after every mission.

The VIP Dinner

This was no ordinary dinner.  Famous space exploration people were all around.  There were even little sticks of butter shaped like an orbiter!  Towards the end of the dinner, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin gave a speech about women in space and about his already space-eager little granddaughter.

Astronaut Ken Cockrell- After dinner, I went up to the space shuttle commander, introduced myself, and got an autograph.  Cool!

Dignitary Discussion

This was a discussion panel of dignitaries including Sally Ride, Marta Bohn-Meyer (the first woman to fly an SR-71), Kathryn Sullivan, Donna Shirley, Yvonne Cagle (astronaut), Jennifer Harris (flight director of the Mars Pathfinder), and Ellen Ochoa.  They talked about women's roles in science and how it is changing.  It was such a funny forum that many of the panelists broke out laughing!  No one should have missed it.  Their efforts to do their best was inspiring.  Dawn Riley, the first female captain of an America's Cup sailing team, whom I interviewed the day before, sat in front of me.

Crew Walkout

A short but exciting time, it was the public's last chance to see the crew before they headed out to the launch pad.  It was so hard to get a good view that I had to fish out my press badge to the suspicious security guard and climb over to the press side to actually see something.  It only lasted a few seconds, but the walkout was like when movie stars exit from a building with tons of people cheering and flashing cameras.

Donna Shirley- I finally got to meet the former head of the Mars Exploration Program at JPL.  During the panel discussion, she had so much power in what she was saying.  A tough lady, exactly like what she was like in her autobiographical book.


There was a workshop presented to us about the differences between men and women and about training the body to do what you want (e.g. controlling your heart rate).  It was interesting, but how can it be not fun when one of the presenters is a neuroendocrinologist!

Astronaut Ellen Ochoa- I've been trying to get a talk with Ellen for a while.  She was on the previous space shuttle mission, STS-96.  I was following the mission very closely because Canadian astronaut Julie Payette was onboard.  I told Ellen that I missed her crew presentation in Edmonton because I had just travelled to Florida two days earlier.  She said she enjoyed their presentation at our Space and Sciences Centre.  Ellen then gave me her autograph, and awesome... she gave me an STS-96 mission patch!

Astronauts/Panelists Q&A

First Lady Hillary Clinton was supposed to come and give a speech to us, but she got delayed so all of us left to go out to the bleachers to see the launch.  However, while we were waiting, the astronauts and some of the panelists came out to answer more questions.

Astronaut Yvonne Cagle- Yvonne sat beside me while we were waiting for the First Lady.  We had a short chat.  Yvonne said that she came to Edmonton before.  I then told her that she should go to our Canadian Rockies as it is a very beautiful place.  By then, I had all of my access badges hanging on my shirt.  She saw them and she told me that I should save all those badges.  No doubt, I will.

So, the last thing to anticipate was the launch..........

Too Much Hydrogen is a Bad Thing

July 20

So, we were all ready for launch.  All of the VIPs rolled out to the VIP viewing area.  Up across the Banana River was the shuttle on Pad 39-B ready for launch.  The bleachers were filled with people, so I guess this mission really had lots of media attention.  The countdown clock was on its planned hold at T-9 minutes.  Columbia would launch, right?

As the clock ticked down, people were ready to see a view of a lifetime.  The national anthem was sung and there were only 2 minutes left.  With the countdown clock mostly blocked by people, I sat there trying to catch a glance of the time left.  Over the speakers, the final seconds were being announced and all we could do was wait...

...7...6...  The announcer stopped and I counted 5 seconds in my head, but nothing happened.  Columbia did not move.  The clock was frozen at 5 seconds.  Slowly, we heard the voices in the Firing Room telling the astronauts to "safe" different parts of the shuttle.  Two men sitting in front of me said, "They're safing the vehicle.  It's not going up today.  Let's leave."  I hoped they were wrong, but it was true; the launch was aborted.

What happened was at T-6, hydrogen was detected at very high levels in the aft compartment of the engines.  The engineers called for cut-off and at T-6 1/2 seconds, the launch sequence was cut.  That meant that in another half a second the main engines would have fired and they would have had to be replaced.  Fortunately, that was not the case.  A 48-hour turnaround was in effect (the shuttle would launch 2 days later) because some thrusters were fired and needed to be replaced.  At the Press Conference on NASA-TV at 2:30 a.m. (I was pretty tired and frustrated by this time), it was announced that the high hydrogen level readings were only because of a faulty sensor so the launch would go in two days.

At Least it Wasn't Hail

July 22

This time, we were at the Press Site, where the reporters call out the launch, so the angle of the viewing was different.  Even so, the shuttle was quite impressive, about four miles away.  The first thing I noticed were the tremendous amounts of bugs there.  Never have I seen so many varieties of mosquitoes and insects all at the same time!  Therefore, I took refuge in the News Media Center.

Hey, aren't these the reporter guys (and gals) that make up the news broadcasts that we see every night?  Cool!  I'm one of them!  Soon, Marissa and I [Sabrina had to go back home] began our second webcast in preparation for the launch, going one-on-one with those tuning in.  Between the swatting of bugs and answering of questions, we saw the countdown clock stuck on the T-5 minute mark.  Uh oh!  And by around 2 a.m., press people started to leave.  Scrubbed again!  This time, it was because of the thunderstorms in the area.  It all seemed like déjà vu as the last mission, STS-96, was also delayed by weather -- notably the hail.  Then again, this was just a 24-hour turnaround and not a serious storm.  Okay, last chance for me to see it tomorrow!

An Early Birthday Gift!

July 23

Running low on power (we had gotten to the hotel in Orlando at 4 in the morning), I was a bit worried about the weather that was streaming into Orlando.  Clouds, lightning, thunder, rain, and more rain.  In my head came the words, "Please... please launch today!"  This was my last day in Florida, and I wasn't going to leave without seeing a shuttle lift off!  To boot, the mission would have to be delayed about a month if it was scrubbed again.  Everyone cross your fingers!

Getting to the Press Site very late (it was already T-20 minutes) my dad told me that if the shuttle launched today, it would be the best birthday gift I ever got, since I was turning 16 in three weeks.  Yeah, it sure would!  We started the third webcast.  The shuttle was up on the pad and the weather was just fine.  Before I knew it, the countdown was down to T-2 minutes.  The Vent Hood (the covering on the top of the External Tank) was retracted.  Marissa and I were still talking on the webcast and thinking, "It's really going to launch today!"

In what looked like a sudden revival, the SSMEs (main engines) glowed with light.  For six seconds they fired before the SRBs ignited and the whole complex rose into the sky.  By the time the shuttle left the Launch Tower, the full sound of the rocket reached us.  It was as loud as fireworks, not just "pops" but a complete ear-deafening roar!  The rumbles were so loud that I was wondering how the astronauts could protect their ears inside the cabin.  Were we really miles away from the launch site?  If I was blindfolded, I would have thought that I had my ears pressed onto a full thrust airplane engine.  The other thing that you cannot avoid is the light energy the shuttle produces.  Not long after the sound hit us, it was the illumination that amazed us. Even though the Press Site lights were still on, it looked like the sun had actually risen.  Was it daytime?  It sure seemed like it.

Still with my jaw wide open, I saw the shuttle's quick ascent, glancing there and then to look at the close-ups on the TV monitor.  It's really up there!  And as these feelings still churned, we reached SRB separation.  The shuttle was off to the right of our view and it was just too far to see the separation.  Whew!  The most dangerous part of flight is over.  For quite a few minutes afterward, we could see the bright "star" in the sky, getting dimmer and dimmer as it neared space.  By T+8 1/2 minutes, the shuttle was in orbit and there was MECO (Main Engine Cut-Off) and ET separation.

After it had gone out of our view, Marissa and I were still in a bit of denial.  "No, the shuttle didn't really launch, it's over there."  Oops!  It's gone... and to boot, the exhaust plume was hovering over the pad along with a jet of flame streaming up from it!.  Eileen Collins and her crew are really up there!  Whoa!  How could we sleep after experiencing that!  It launched at 12:31 a.m. EDT.

Those days culminating into the fabulous launch will never be forgotten.  Taking a last look at the pad (with a smoke plume even after 30 minutes!) and the VAB, we turned off to the NASA Causeway [road] and headed off to Orlando.  In less than 6 hours, I was on an aircraft heading home.  It wasn't the shuttle.  It wasn't going to space.  Perhaps someday, it will, though.  Yes, what a wonderful birthday gift!

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