The Space Shuttle
May 16th, 2011 | Back to Blog Listing

Between May of 2009 and May of 2011, I visited Orlando and ultimately Cape Canaveral 13 separate times in hopes of seeing the Space Shuttle lift off. With NASA's 30 year Space Shuttle program finally coming to an end, this was the last chance I would have to see the spectacle. The only thing I've ever really wanted to do was to become an astronaut and visit space; this was as close as I might get.

I was originally scheduled to see the 3rd to final shuttle launch. My friend Dave G. and I drove across the country for the opportunity. After the launch was scrubbed several times, we had to drive back home. Dave wasn't interested in trying again, but I decided I was going to see the launch regardless of the effort involved. I missed the 3rd to last launch due to obligations and the situation grew more dire; there were only two launches left. After two years of routine trips between Austin and Orlando and after many, many thousands of dollars spent (and some 60 hours in the air) I finally saw Space Shuttle Endeavour lift off on May 16th, 2011 at 8:56am EST as part of STS-134.

The story of how it happened is even more amazing.

My dear friend Tim had a connection with the NASA visitors team at Cape Canaveral. As a hotel executive with the Gaylord Palms, he ensured that families and friends of astronauts and other important people connected to NASA had the opportunity to see launches from the 3-mile VIP center.


My visitors badge

The incredible F5 engines on the Saturn-V rocket
Experiencing a scrubbed launch was both frustrating and exhausting. The launch process basically consisted of me driving 90 minutes from Orlando towards the outskirts of Cape Canaveral. I'd then have to board a private NASA bus that would take me from the bus terminal to the visitor's area 3 miles from the launch site. I would often sit with families of the astronauts and extremely gifted scientists from around the world. That part was wonderful. The weather was a different story. It was consistently hot and very humid. I would be on-site for six to eight hours at a time. I passed the time by strolling around the NASA museum gazing at the old Saturn rocket series. Those spacecraft are absolutely amazing marvels of engineering. The launches would usually be scrubbed after about 8 hours of waiting when the clock was down to the last hour. It was gut-wrenching every time and I'd have to spend another 2-3 hours fighting traffic to get back to Orlando.

I had just flown back to Austin after yet another scrubbed launch and was extremely disappointed. This was the 12th launch that I had seen scrubbed. I had become pretty well known to many of the officials at Cape Canaveral as "Tim's friend from Austin". Despite being a bad omen at that point, they were very welcoming. I hadn't been in Austin but a day when Tim called me up and told me that the launch had just been rescheduled and that he had a seat for me (he always got the relaunch dates and times before they were made public). I really did not want to make the trip because I was so exhausted of the process, but he had a good feeling about it and so I did. The catch was that he would be in Jacksonville going on a date with a girl named Courtney - she was a friend of a friend. I wound up getting to meet her that weekend and attended their wedding the following year. I bought a last minute ticket to Jacksonville; Tim told me he would take care of everything else. He did.

When I arrived in Jacksonville I had a text message from Tim instructing me to visit the valet in front of the airport. I was to show them my ID. I did. They presented me the keys to a car. I got in the car and inside was a post-it note on the GPS telling me to follow the directions to the pre-programmed destination. There was a note instructing me to use a false name when I got to the gate and that I was there to see the Daltons. There was also a ticket to the Jacksonville PGA tour.

Without talking to Tim I drove about an hour to the GPS destination as instructed. When I got to the private community gate I told the guard I was Brian Dalton (as instructed). He welcomed me and directed me to their home. When I finally arrived at their home (complete strangers to me mind you), there was a guy waiting for me on a golf cart with a beer. He asked me if I was Kevin and upon confirmation told me to get in and to bring my ticket. The beer was for me. He drove me on the golf cart to the front of the PGA security gate and walked me in with my ticket. He walked me over to Tim hanging out with the girl he had just met and I got to watch all of the famous golfers do their thing. I'm not much for golfing, but it was an enjoyable time getting drunk.


The official clock with about 1hr 20m to go
We left around 8pm with a bunch of people (including Courtney), had an incredibly drunken sushi dinner, and proceeded to drive to Tim's house in Kissimmee, Florida. By the time we got there it was around midnight. We went to bed, woke up at 4:15 in the morning, and drove our way to Cape Canaveral with the top down in his car jamming out to Lonely Island. We were on our way to see the final NASA shuttle launch of all time.

Two hours later I saw one of the most spectacular sites of my life. It's impossible to describe what a shuttle launch is like in person. There is no film I have ever seen that truly captures the power of it. I was delighted to check off another bucket list item.

Tim is a really great friend. Even sweeter is that NASA wound up adding one last flight; Courtney was there for that one.