Friday, 29 July 2011

On the beach

The Space Shuttle programme may be over and the Lighthouse Keeper back in England, now well-recovered from the effects of jet-lag after the return flight.

But before we head to pastures new there is more to tell about this part of Florida - some of the experiences that it wasn’t possible to write about in real-time during the long, frenetic days around the launch of Atlantis.

Four days after launch (12 July 2011) and it is early evening on Cocoa Beach, a stone’s throw from my temporary home at the rustic and friendly Pelican Landing Resort.

For the first time in a week the coast has seen day-long clear blue skies and, in the middle of the day at least, an almost unbearable sun.

But things have cooled off just a little by 6 pm and with a refreshing breeze off the sea it is as good a time as any to sit on the shoreline and muse a little.

The great six mile long stretch of sand disappears into the distance on both sides, a faint misty spray blurring the distant detail like some desert heat haze.

It starts in the north at Jetty Park, a park and campground area with its own sand dune and beach area, waterside picnic spots and fishing pier, all at the entrance to the busy Port Canaveral.

From Jetty Park you can watch and boats and ships go by, and across the tidal inlet you can see towards the launch towers of Cape Canaveral Air Force base, a good spot for watching unmanned launches of Atlas and Delta rockets.

The Shuttle pad itself is blocked from here by a low mound of land but if you didn’t mind joining the action a few seconds after launch then it was still a good spot to watch Shuttles climbing rapidly into the sky on their way into orbit.

There is an abundance of wildlife all around - seabirds, bottlenose dolphins, manatee and sea turtles, as well as the occasional Raccoon venturing out onto the rocks.

The loud clear whistle of the Osprey is one of coastal Florida's most characteristic sounds. Sometimes mistaken for a bald eagle (because of the white head), the Ospreys are often seen flying with a fish grasped tightly in their talons.

From my spot on the beach some four miles down from Jetty Park I am surveyed by a passing Pelican, which gracefully shadows the wave-line, seemingly without effort for such a large bird.

Just offshore more Pelicans appear to plunder a shoal of surface-feeding fish. Suddenly their wings fold and they dive-bomb into the water with a great splash, and then you see them bobbing on the water whilst devouring their catch.

It’s also time for the myriad of ‘sand spiders’ to come out of their holes in the sand. Though they have an uncanny resemblance to spiders they are actually crabs and come in all sizes and camouflaged colours, emerging sideways from the sand hole before darting back and forth as the waves roll and retreat.

The smallest look like they are floating over the fine sand. All crabs scamper at lightening speed and disappear down their hole as soon as anything moves or spooks them.

A wave rushes in and for a moment they all disappear. And then, at the sand hole near my foot, a pair of pointy black eyes pop out, flicking around to assess the landscape once more before deciding to dash here and there.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Shuttle slips into history

The iconic soul and heart of the US space programme for the past three decades slipped gracefully into history this morning.

Space Shuttle Atlantis swept into the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) making a poignant touchdown on a dark runway just before sunrise at 0557 local time.

Despite the dark pre-dawn skies over Florida large crowds came out to try to glimpse Atlantis as it made its historic return from orbit.

Its de-orbit track brought the orbiter across central Florida and then over Titusville before a hard bank to the left put the vehicle on a line to Runway 15 at KSC.

Touch-down marked a moment of high emotion for the local region - not least because it will trigger a big lay-off of contractor staff. Several thousand involved in Shuttle operations will lose their jobs within days.

Launching people into space is a potent symbol of technological and engineering prowess - but for the Space Shuttle programme it was the pre-dawn landing of Atlantis that truly signalled the end.

"When the wheels stopped on the runway, the displays went blank and the orbiter was unpowered for the final time there was a rush of emotion," said commander Chris ‘Fergie' Fergueson after stepping from the orbiter.

"That was the moment when we all finally realised that it's all over, the crowning jewel of our space programme.

"The Space Shuttle changed the way we view the world and it changed the way we view the Universe."

Friday, 15 July 2011

Pelican brief

In the interests of completeness and as a diversion from the upcoming landing of the Space Shuttle Atlantis next week some readers might be interested in a little information about my Florida base for the trip.

I stayed in downtown Cocoa Beach, a ribbon of development that spills along this section of the Florida coast. Just six miles long and mostly less than one mile wide, it is located on a barrier island, nestled between the Atlantic ocean and the Banana River lagoon.

Apart from its proximity to Kennedy Space Center, a primary attraction for the thousands of tourists that visit Cocoa Beach each year is the weather.

With its coastal location and juxtaposition between two climatic zones (sub-tropic and temperate), the weather usually avoids extremes. This unique location also attracts an abundance of wildlife indigenous to both climatic zones, as well as coastal and migratory species.


Cocoa Beach is about 30 minutes’ drive from all the action at Kennedy Space Center, so all in all is a convenient and very pleasant location.

However, this being the last ever Shuttle launch in the 30 year history of the programme, accommodation was at a premium - hotel prices treble the normal rates and self-catering condos seemingly all booked for this week in July.

As the official target launch date for Atlantis was only confirmed towards the very end of June so there was not much room for manoeuvre or advance booking. But with my flight ticket reservation within hours of expiring I struck gold.

Shelly Suttle (if ever there was an omen in a name) of the Pelican Landing Resort got back to me to say there had been a cancellation for exactly the dates I required. Things were slotting into place.

My ‘home’ for the eight day trip would be at 1201 South Atlantic Avenue, Cocoa Beach, a former two-storey motel now converted into a 10 individual apartments each for two people, located about 1.5 miles south of downtown Cocoa Beach.


I knew from the description on the Pelican Landing website that it was located on a relatively isolated section of the beach amongst the sand dunes and a stone’s throw from the Atlantic.

But even that didn’t prepare me for the stunning view from unit number six on the first floor with its panoramic picture window overlooking the beach and sea, and the glorious early morning sunrises.

All photos by Clive Simpson

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Wings of Discovery

On a wonderfully bright and sunny morning with temperatures in the 90s, I and a couple of dozen other writers and photographers had the privilege to witness the first outside public appearance since retirement of the Space Shuttle Discovery.

It was the first day of my trip that skies had dawned cloudless and a perfect crystal blue, providing a beautiful backdrop to the spectacle.

As Discovery was pushed slowly out of her processing facility by a bright yellow tow truck the enormity of the changes wrested up on this craft struck home.

She emerged without any main engines, nose thrusters or aft rocket pods. Seeing the stripped down orbiter with a gaping hole in the nose was a harsh reminder that the spaceship's flying days are over.

Discovery was being moved to the nearby Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to enter storage, opening up the processing hanger to receive Atlantis after the final Space Shuttle landing next week.

Technicians are in the midst of a multi-month process of making safe Discovery's systems and readying the orbiter for the Smithsonian museum in Washington. Before she leaves Florida next year NASA will outfit the ship with mocked up engines and thrusters so that it looks ‘normal’ in the museum display.

"We're currently in the process of decommissioning Discovery," Stephanie Stilson, Discovery’s long-time process flow manager, told me. "Part of doing that means we have to go in and safe the major systems that have hazards."

A hundred or so NASA office workers gathered by the rope boundary to witness and photograph the giant spaceship, the likes of which will probably never fly in space again.

The Shuttle fleet has been the life-blood of Kennedy Space Center for three decades and many employees, a good number of whom face redundancy in the coming days and weeks, expressed their sadness at seeing the orbiter like this at the end of its flying career.

"It is like Discovery has become disfigured," one person told me, whilst others said they found it too emotional even to come out and see the orbiter in such a decimated state.

For the rest of us it was another very special moment as Discovery moved closer and towered overhead before being slowly and carefully towed from the main roadway on the final stretch towards the VAB.

At one point we were standing right under the wing of a craft that had altogether spent a full year in space during 39 missions, has orbited Earth 5,830 times and travelled 148,221,675 miles during a flight career spanning 27 years.

Picture below - a rare photo-call for the British Interplanetary Society Spaceflight team at KSC during the roll over of the decomissioned Space Shuttle Discovery. From left: Rudolf van Beest (Netherlands), Andy Green (UK), Clive Simpson (Editor - UK), Joel Powell (Canada), Ken Kremer (USA) and Gerard van de Haar (Netherlands).

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Lost in time

As an aside to the main writing themes of the Lighthouse Keeper blog a number of people have asked me about some of the titles used for the various entries about the final Space Shuttle mission.

Well, apart from the obvious ‘label’ headings, there was a musical bent to some of the others - ‘A beautiful day’ (the U2 song), the rather obvious ‘Final countdown’ (explained in that blog), ‘Big boys don’t cry’ (lyrics from 10cc’s' 'I’m not in love') and ‘Tears in the rain’.

The latter is perhaps the least evident but has two potential origins - the 1988 television movie directed by Don Sharp and starring Sharon Stone and Christopher Cazenove, which was based on the romantic novel of the same name written by Pamela Wallace. How likely is that? Or, the science fiction film Blade Runner.

As the 1982 film Blade Runner - directed by Ridley Scott and based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick - is an all-time favourite of the Lighthouse Keeper then there was no contest.

‘Tears in the rain’ is the title of one of the Vangelis compositions on the soundtrack and also forms part of an introspective phrase used by Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer), one of the replicant characters, regarding his own death during a rain downpour.

"I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments, will be lost in time like tears in rain..."

It is far too early to know for sure how long-lasting the legacy of Atlantis and the other Space Shuttles will be for future generations - or will these fine flying machines become ‘lost in time’ themselves?

Either way, maybe the Space Shuttle Atlantis was shedding a tear or two of her own during the torrential downpours on the day before launch.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Booster recovery

A special water cannon salute welcomed the NASA tow ship Liberty Star as it cruised into Port Canaveral on a hot Sunday afternoon with the Shuttle's right solid rocket booster in tow. We watched and took pictures from Jetty Pier alongside fishermen and hundreds of onlookers as the giant 'sea slug' slid past.

The twin reusable solid rocket boosters helped propel Atlantis on the 135th and final Space Shuttle flight and after each launch the boosters are recovered in the ocean after being jettisoned some two minutes into the flight.

The water canon tribute was put on specially to mark the end of the programme - but the sister ship Freedom Star missed out on the special welcome after suffering engine problems at sea which meant it only arrived back into port under cover of darkness at around midnight.

NASA and manufacturer ATK off-load boosters at Hangar AF at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. There, the boosters are put in stands and engineers and technicians make certain they are safe for workers to handle.

Initial post-flight inspections are done and then the boosters receive the ultimate pressure-washing - a 'hydrolasing' process that removes thermal protection system foam from the rockets.

For all Shuttle missions the various segments of each booster are recombined in different configurations. The specific combination was kind of special for STS-135 as the boosters included segments from Shuttle flight, STS-26 (the first return-to-flight after the Challenger tragedy), STS-71 (Atlantis’ first docking to the Mir space station), STS-101 (Atlantis’ first ISS docking), STS-114 (the second return-to-flight after the loss of Columbia).

By around 2 pm on Sunday afternoon most of the media who had been photographing the first SRB coming in from the open sea at Jetty Park were encamped in the ‘Fish Lips’ ocean front restaurant for welcome refreshment.

Myself, Andy Green and Japanese journalist Kanoko Nakashima had not long joined them and just ordered our burgers when there was a sudden scramble from the others to pay and go.

Liberty Star, with the booster now firmly lashed alongside, had appeared in the channel right below the balcony where we were all sitting on its way to the Canaveral lock and the final stage of its journey home.

We elected to remain and eat our meal, with the knowledge that we’d likely get the chance to see the second booster’s trip through the lock gates, which separate the salty Atlantic from the freshwater Banana river, later or the next day.

To the sightseers and photographers at the lock all seemed to have gone according to plan. The first booster was delivered to ATK and the second would now make the journey early on Monday morning.

It was only when Andy and I arrived at the lock gates around 7 am the next day and started chatting to lock leader Michael Mannhardt that we learned the back end of the first booster had  hit the side of the lock and been damaged as it was manoeuvred out.

This morning the rest of the media were waiting further up to first catch shots of the combination as it approached the lock system through a lifting road bridge, so we'd had an exlcusive first insight into what had happened.

Mike told us that the accident was due to a sand bar caused by the deep water drop off at the lock exit which, although it had recently been excavated from eight to 13 feet, could still present a problem to some vessels.

As a result - and because the Freedom Star with the second booster was carrying excess fuel which made it lower in the water - NASA decided to instigate a small boat ‘handover’ instead.

Freedom Star would bring the booster into the top end of the lock and then the booster would be detached and towed through and out of the other end by three Zodiac inflatable and passed to Liberty Star.

Though the exercise was not unique in the history of the Shuttle programme it made for a much  more dramatic finale and photo opportunity for this normally straight forward aspect of recovery.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Big boys don't cry

A delay of a few seconds between a live event and it being broadcast on the TV is normally neither here nor there. But in this case timing was crucial.

For Spaceflight writer Dwayne Day it proved rather more significant, as he explained to me later in the day. He had flown in from Washington and was at Cocoa Beach watching the launch on TV in a friend’s apartment.

The idea was to dash to the outside balcony at the moment the countdown hit zero. As the engines fired on the TV screen he rushed outside, only to see the distant Shuttle already climbing well above the pad!

Watching a Space Shuttle launch is always an emotional experience - but especially so when it is the last one ever in the 30 year history of the programme.

NASA managers at the post-launch media briefing were visibly moved and there was spontaneous and heartfelt applause for the two ‘Mikes’ - Mike Lienbach, Shuttle launch director, and Mike Moses, Shuttle integration manager - as they entered the press room some 90 minutes after liftoff.

When asked about his feelings Mike Moses (left) admitted that he was normally ‘choked’ up after a launch. This time, he said, it was before blastoff.

"It looked like it was lifting off in slow motion," he said. "It was very moving, very beautiful."

After the launch was over we stood around to reflect on the moment. For everyone it was a shared experience. We patted backs and shook hands with friends we had come to know and work with over the years.

For the tightly knit launch team the fun was over too. They lingered in the firing room after the successful launch, exchanging hugs and pats on the back and taking photos together.

"We will never see that again," Mike Leinbach and a colleague remarked to each other. "It was a special moment."

"It seemed like we didn't want to leave," he added. "It was like the end of a party and you just don't want to go."

A jewel of brightness

If there could be a downside to standing near the countdown clock at KSC to witness a launch from the closest point possible - a fraction over three miles - then it is because they no longer broadcast the launch commentary over the PA system.

There are probably good reasons, like the fact that it would upset all the TV companies doing their live broadcasts from the back of the site.

So, we have only the countdown clock as our means of assessing the state of progress and to mark the passage of time towards launch.

When 00:08:59 suddenly appears after the final scheduled ‘hold’ at t-minus nine minutes you know things are getting closer to the grande finale.

There’s excited chatter and people begin shouting out the numbers as the time clicks closer to zero - two minutes and counting, one minute... The excitement and tension is spilling out.

And then we stare in disbelief. Just as it seemed Atlantis had beaten the odds the countdown clock freezes. Cries of dismay - what can have happened at such a late stage? Surely that’s today’s launch attempt over?

Indeed, as the seconds ticked into long minutes some people even started retreating from their spots thinking that it really was all over for today at least.

Out there we had no way of knowing what was happening. No announcements to the assembled crowd - instead of the roar of the mighty engines all remained silent.

Of course, those watching round the world on NASA TV knew that mission control was unsure whether the ‘beanie cap’ that covers the top of the giant orange external tank had properly retracted.

Sounds crazy when you are at the actual launch site but I quickly dialled up home 4000 miles away in England where my wife was glued to NASA’s broadcast.

"It’s a problem with the beanie cap," she quickly explained and then, "but it’s been sorted and they are going!" With that the countdown clock burst to life again, resolutely marking off the last 30 seconds.

Smoke billowed from the pad and at first the Shuttle rose in silence. Then the crackling of its engines comes rumbling across, transforming into a noise that shakes the ground and rocks through your whole body.

Rising majestically one final time, Atlantis spread her wings and powered into the sky with what is understood to have been one million people watching from every available viewpoint in this part of Florida.

The orbiter climbed on a blinding column of fire from the same pad that launched Columbia in 1981 on the very first Shuttle flight, a rippling roar emanating from its main engines and boosters as spectators everywhere cheered, clapped and cried.

The flame was brighter than anything you can manage, almost too piercing to look at in real life - a jewel of brightness climbing into the heavens.

Though it didn't take long for Atlantis to disappear through the clouds, it left a lasting impression for those on the ground.

Even after it reached orbit some eight minutes after liftoff the billowing trail of smoke and steam it left behind maintained a steady link between the launch complex and cloud deck, as if holding on to the last departing Shuttle.

My 'automated' snaps turned out surprisingly well and some of them are added above along with (below) an official NASA shot of the KSC crowd, in which I can be spotted in the foreground if you know exactly where to look.

Atlantis spreads its wings

Just experienced history in the making - a once (and last) in a lifetime event. It will take a while to sink in, hence I am posting my thoughts and impressions in the days afterwards.

Friday morning 10.30 am. It was getting hotter by the minute as the clouds scattered over Kennedy Space Center, like curtains unveiling a giant stage for one last drama. The forecast showers hadn’t materialised and controllers in the ‘firing room' gave the ‘go' for ascent after a positive poll from their ground teams.

In reality the weather was just good enough for launch – based on some additional acceptance on the forecasted conditions at the nearby Shuttle Landing Facility had a Return To Landing Site abort been required.

But then the countdown clock dramatically stopped at T-31 seconds, just prior to the final automatic sequence. This was based on a lack of an indication that the‘beanie cap’, technically known as the GOX Vent Arm, had properly retracted and latched from the top of the external tank.

We were told in the post-launch briefing that this is something engineers were aware could happen but were still surprised it showed during an actual launch countdown.

Thankfully, the Firing Room teams were prepared. In three long minutes they ran through a pre-determined procedure to verify the arm was retracted and latched using a closed circuit camera.

As the countdown resumed - with only 58 seconds left of the launch window - launch director Mike Leinbach told the Atlantis crew - Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim - to "have a little fun up there" with "a true American icon".

Friday, 8 July 2011

Rocket roll

Excitement and anticipation at the press site mounted as the minutes towards countdown rolled back and it looked as if the cloud cover might thin out just in time.

Now to choose a spot and set up the camera tripod. I wasn’t really here to take photos but if the cameras were pointing in the right direction they could do their business unattended while I viewed the launch unencumbered. And at least I would have some of my own pictures of the moment too.

I wanted to shoot a general view of liftoff with the amassed crowd in the foreground, along with the famous countdown clock and flag - my Nikon D70 was mounted atop the tripod for still views and a Fuji compact for movie footage was wrapped around the stem using a mini Gorillapod.

Astronomy and space lecturer Andy Green, from Cambridge in the UK, was just behind me and to the side was Steven Kates, known as ‘Dr Sky’, a TV and radio broadcaster in the US with a mission to ‘educate and entertain the world on all that is in the sky’. This was his first live launch and he kept us entertained with live pre-launch reports and commentaries.

As I’d left before the crack of dawn without any breakfast and we still had an hour or so of the countdown to go so there was time to visit the legendary NASA Snack Mobile parked amongst the US TV outside broadcast wagons, with their giant satellite dishes and bright logos.


The Snack Mobile looks like it has been around since the days of Apollo and, it being NASA, you kind of hope it might sell some kind of magical space food.

Adding to its mystique is the fact that the van only ever appears on launch days - so its future appearances now seem even more restricted, at least in the near term.

Entry is through the back and once inside you can select hot snacks from stainless steel pull-out drawers and drinks from a chiller before paying the lady sitting in the driver’s seat at the front.

Rather than fancy astronaut food I settled for a burger in a soft bun and an ice cold can of Sprite. The food was actually quite tasty (or maybe I was just so hungry). But that is not what really counts - more the fact that you’ve actually stepped inside and made a purchase from the famed NASA Snack Mobile.


It's a beautiful day

Thirty years and 135 missions after its debut, NASA got down to the business of launching a Space Shuttle for the final time this morning.

It was a privilege to be amongst the 1,350 media representatives from around the world who had descended en masse - many to witness a launch for the first time - for this history-making occasion.

My day started with a 4.30 am wake up call, which was at exactly the same time the four astronauts were woken in their quarters at KSC for breakfast and to begin their preparations.

It was still dark and the air heavy and humid as I started the 35 minute drive from downtown Cocoa Beach towards the space centre.

Traffic was already heavy and vehicles of all shapes and sizes were beginning to congregate on the roadsides to reserve distant views across the Banana River to the launch site for their bleary-eyed occupants. With up to a million visitors expected, many had ‘camped’ overnight to reserve their spot.

As well as the normal security gate a second advance checkpoint had been instigated on the approach to the KSC perimeter and by 6 am cars were backing up in both lanes, cop cars and trucks parked alongside adding to a sense of occasion with their blue flashing lights cutting through the dark.

There had already been a few spits of rain as the first light of dawn began appearing through a crack in the dark overnight clouds - and with it came a glimmer of hope that it might just clear enough in a few hours’ time to get Atlantis off the pad.

For much of the week, and particularly with yesterday’s torrential rain and thunderstorms, a launch had been thought highly unlikely today with only a 30 percent chance of the weather being acceptable.

I arrived at the press site in the nick of time for another security check, this time with an army trained sniffer dog, as four NASA coaches lined up to take a elite group of mainly photographers to witness the traditional crew walkout.

We had less than an hour to wait behind a barrier for the astronauts, clad in their distinctive orange flight suits, to make their brief appearance. Many of the regular photographers position small step ladders to get an elevated view of the heads of others.

The photographers are joined by other guests and onlookers as the time for walkout draws nearer and the sense of excitement and anticipation is heightened when a military helicopter begins circling overhead.

Word comes that the astronauts are in the elevator and then a huge cheer goes up as the four - Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim appear from behind the silver Astrobus. They wave and pose before climbing onboard for the 15 minute journey to Pad 39A.

The crowd begins to disperse and I glimpse a familiar face - Nichelle Nichols, known to millions around the world as ‘Uhura’, the communications officer on Enterprise in the original Star Trek series.

With three hours to go before launch we head back to the press site. Overhead the cloud ceiling seems a little higher than before and some small breaks have appeared here and there.

Despite the previous day’s dire predictions maybe it had been a good call to proceed with the overnight tanking of Atlantis. The Florida weather can be as fickle as anywhere.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Tears in the rain

Torrential rain, thunder and lightening made for an atrocious day at Kennedy Space Center today. Rain doused the Space Shuttle orbiter and two lightning bolts struck on or nearby the launch pad.

Officials said a preliminary assessment found no major problems or systems affected and while additional data reviews were planned, engineers did not expect to need any time-consuming system re-tests.

Forecasters predicted a 70 percent chance of stormy weather triggering a launch delay tomorrow, though the forecast improves slightly to 60 percent ‘no go’ Saturday and then to 40 percent on Sunday.

"Weather is not looking good for launch," shuttle weather officer Kathy Winters told reporters during a morning briefing.

"As you can see outside, the clouds have rolled in, we're starting to see some showers. We even had a thunderstorm show up this morning. So we are expecting more of this for the next couple of days."

The appalling conditions didn’t prevent NASA going ahead with the retraction of the Rotating Service Structure protecting Atlantis on launch pad 39A. It began rolling back at 2:38 pm, about 30 minutes later than planned.

Rain was pounding KSC at the time and a couple of hundred media photographers, including myself, were drenched as we waited in the open for security checks before being bused out to the launch pad to see the Shuttle.

With temperatures in the mid-80s Fahrenheit it was steamy and humid as we viewed Atlantis from the crawler-way which leads up to the launch pad. As well as the media the mosquitos were out in force.

A three hour tanking operation to fill the giant external tank with fuel was scheduled to begin at 2 am Friday morning after an assessment of the weather conditions by mission managers.