Three years ago today, I saw something magnificent, something awe-inspiring, something powerful, something scary, something that made me shake (in more ways than one), something historical, and something I’d waited 115 days for.
Space Shuttle Discovery launched from pad 39A, Kennedy Space Centre, Cape Canaveral, for the very last time.
It was an emotional experience, not least because it was the first time I’d seen a space shuttle, in all her majesty, lifting gracefully off the planet in a blaze of fire and light. And not just because I knew the husband of one of those astronauts, one of those people, being rocketed through the atmosphere. Not even because I’d put my life on hold and waited, waited, waited, for that moment, but because of a combination of all those things, and the most amazing bunch of people that I could ever have wished to share it with.
You may have seen me refer to myself as the “Space Nomad” and wondered what the heck that is all about. It’s about Diva Discovery, NASA Tweet-up, and an incredible family of friends that were thrown together but then stuck together. I tell the story often, to anyone who’ll listen really… it goes like this:
I was selected to see one of the final shuttle launches, as part of a NASA Tweet-up. We would be able to watch STS-133 launch from the closest place anyone (except the emergency crews and the actual space shuttle crew) could be. 3.1 miles away at the KSC press site.
I packed my bags and off I went. Hotels were too expensive so I’d gathered a few people on an email list and we decided to share a house, and then another house, and another… five shared houses later we were ready to go. I had no idea who these people were, but they liked space, so they must be cool – right?
By the time I stepped of my plane from London, the launch date had already slipped back a day. But that was no problem; it gave us a bit more time to get to know each other before the big day – and to have a Halloween party.
There were further slips, it was going to launch on Friday. Some people already had to leave, but I’d booked to be away for ten days, just in case.
Friday came, our insider contacts sent us pre-dawn text messages confirming Discovery was being fuelled up. Things were good. This group of strangers had become friends, and today we were going to have the experience of our lives, watching a shuttle launch.
My dream team – DJ Flux and Nathan Bergey – jumped in the car. We took it in turns choosing the right dramatic music as we got closer and closer to KSC. Just as we parked up at the press site my phone beeped, I had an immediate sinking feeling as I realised no-one had my US number, except… oh.
That one word, unconfirmed to us at the time, took us from nervous elation to a strange, heavy, lost feeling. Uncomprehending, we hugged one another as tears, somewhat unexpectedly welled up.
The next launch window was in two week’s time, but I had to fly home by then and couldn’t afford to fly back again. I had to fly home… didn’t I?
The moment I decided I couldn’t afford not to see the launch, that you only regret what you don’t do, that I’d come this far and made these friends and and.., that was the time I became Space Nomad. I changed my ticket and went to sleep on a friend’s floor in California for a couple of weeks, fully intending to fly back for the launch a fortnight later, but…
..the problem was worse than they thought. It would be another fortnight until they could attempt a launch. I reached out to Twitter, asking what I should do next. Someone suggested Houston, so Houston it was. I stayed with an incredibly wonderful woman called Becca. We’d met a year before, and she worked in Mission Control (yes, actual Mission Control), she took me in and invited me to Thanksgiving dinner. It was an incredible act of kindness that I’ll never forget.
The two weeks were almost up, time to fly back to Florida for Discovery’s launch, or so I thought, but as was beginning to become a habit, “Diva” Discovery wasn’t ready to go yet.
I have the cut the long story short, else I’d be reminiscing over months of travelling, sleeping on floors and in spare rooms, visiting space centres and spacetweeps all round the US and having the most amazing adventure. I got to know Chris Shaffer, Flying Jenny, Tiff and Dave. I watched the first SpaceX launch of a Dragon capsule (and secret cheese payload). I was introduced to “My drunk kitchen” and “Baby monkey”. I flew a shuttle simulator. I baked Christmas cookies in a log cabin. I discovered Portland. I attended (and loved) my first SpaceUP. I giggled with Cariann (and made her miss a flight). I shared a “Katy Perry day” and I visited SpaceX. I saw the Hollywood sign. I made new friends and new family. And then I finally went back to Florida for the launch.
I packed for ten days, I stayed for four-and-a-half months (don’t panic, I had the right visa), but I had to see that shuttle launch. I stood and I watched as the iconic form of the space shuttle raised herself off the pad and on her final space adventure. I clapped and whooped and felt part of something so special because I was surrounded by these great people who all knew just how special it was too.
We quietened down as the low rumble reached us, getting louder and louder and LOUDER and LOUDER. We felt the power of that rocket shake the ground and shake right through us and we never took our eyes of her. Soaring above us we cheered again as the solid rocket boosters separated. We had nothing to do with her success, but we were like proud parents waving her off.
I turned around and Karen James was behind me. She knew Mike Barrett, one of the astronauts on board. I’d never really thought about what it would be like to know someone on top of a shedload of rocket fuel until Paolo Nespoli, an astronaut I’d befriended, launched to the ISS on a Soyuz rocket part the way through my space nomad adventure. It completely changed my perspective. No longer was it all about cool rockets, cool science and smoke and noise and fire and power. No longer were astronauts invincible superheroes who don’t really exist. They were people, friends, and Karen’s friend had be strapped into the thing that just made our camera shutters go wild and our rib cages shake. I’d heard her cheering and shouting throughout the launch, but now the shuttle was out of sight, I knew the focus for all that welled up emotion was also out of reach. I turned and hugged her. It was special. I had only seen Paolo’s launch via a webstream and I was a shivering wreck, I took a guess at how Karen was feeling. I think I guessed right.
We were all there, focussed on that one moment, together. This great group of people, who had once been strangers, are now forever connected by our shared memory of that day. Today, three years on, I’m thinking of you all and remembering it like it was yesterday. I love that people have tagged me in photos and memories, said hello in tweets and kept the 133 spirit alive.
You’re a special bunch, she was a special shuttle, and that was a very special adventure.