Thursday, May 26, 2011

How to See the Last Shuttle Launch STS-135

So you want to see a shuttle launch? Oh, wait. You want to see the last shuttle launch ever!? You must be crazy. Fortunately, I was blessed with a healthy dose of crazy and have attended the last 3 shuttle launches, STS 132, 133, and 134 so I might be able to provide some wisdom.

NASA is expecting a record crowd for the final launch. Upwards of 1 million people could cram the Space Coast and break the record set when Apollo 11 launched for the moon.

First, how much money you got? Launch viewing trips aren't cheap. Attending in groups can save money but you still have expenses like travel (flights, rental cars, gas), ground (hotel, food), and any costs associated with where you view the launch from.

Second, how flexible are you? NASA is very upfront that launching humans into space is risky business and there are many things that can go wrong. Only 1 of the last 3 launches has launched on schedule. Your flexibility also affects your cost. How long can you hang around for delays? I've always taken the approach that if I'm going to start something I'm going to finish it. I'm also fortunate to have a job I can do from anywhere I can get online. So I'm good with bouncing between hotels, McDonald's and Starbucks getting work done. For STS-133, I bounced around for a week in November before the launch was finally scrubbed until late February.

Third, where do you want to the launch from? There are many options:
  1. The Press Site for Launch Complex 39 is the best spot but getting there requires press credentials or access via a NASA Tweetup event.  I was fortunate to be select to the NASA Tweetup for STS-132, which at the time was the final launch of Atlantis and this is by far the best place at 3 miles away.
  2. Almost equal to the press site is the Apollo / Saturn V Center.  It is also 3 miles away facing a different side of the pad but the viewing there would be spectacular.  I have not seen a launch from this site as it is reserved for specific NASA VIP's and astronaut family members.
  3. The best public viewing location is the NASA East Causeway.  Here you are 6 miles from the pad and have a mostly clear view over the water of the Banana River.  Some of the trees on the islands in the river may block a bit of your view of the pad but the shuttle isn't on the pad for long.  To get access here you have to be enter a ticket lottery with the Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Center and then if selected spend $76 per ticket.  Another way to get to the Causeway is to purchase tickets through Gray Line Tours or Florida Dolphin Tours.  They take you to the same place but cost a lot more.  My suggestion if you use a tour company is to select a pickup point in Melbourne, FL.  Otherwise, you will spend 5-9 hours on the bus after the launch in traffic going back to your drop off point in Orlando.  Here is another post I wrote how to get Causeway tickets and the differences between Green, Orange, and Purple.
  4. You can also view a launch from the Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Complex itself.  You can't see the shuttle on the pad but you do see it a few seconds after liftoff.  They have big screen TV's around so you can see main engine start but you can't see anything until it clears the trees.  To get these tickets you also have to enter a lottery and they cost about $50 each.  You are 7 miles away at this location.
  5. The Astronaut Hall of Fame provides another viewing option however, you are 12 miles away, and you still can't see the launch until it clears the tree line.  Tickets for this location are also only available through the ticket lottery and cost around $50 each.
  6. Sometimes you can find private homes, condos or other property along the Indian River in Titusville that you can watch from.  These locations are between 12 and 14 miles away but many times you can see the shuttle stack sitting on the pad.  Don't trespass though if you don't have permissions from the property owners.  There are costs associated with these locations depending on condo rates and/or fees charged by the property owners.
  7. There are many public viewing sites along the Indian River like Space View Park and Rotary Park.  There are also some bridges in Titusville that would make for great viewing locations but are very crowded.  If you are going to a public location to save money, make sure you get there early.  Otherwise, parking could be a big problem.  Everyone gets a good view once the shuttle gets off the ground, but if you want great pics then the earlier you get to your viewing location the better chance you will have better shots.
Of course, before you can see a launch you have to get to the launch site.  I have never viewed driving as an option as it would take 20 hours or so each way.  I value my time more than that so I have always flown.  Here are a few tips for dealing with the airlines and shuttle launches:
  1. Determine your flexibility first.  If you have to come home on a certain day regardless of whether the launch happens or not then go ahead and purchase a round trip ticket so you can lock in the lowest possible fare.  If you do change your mind after purchasing your ticket, remember that all airlines except Southwest charge a change fee plus any difference in fare.  Southwest only charges you the difference in fare.
  2. If you don't have miles but you have some flexibility then consider booking one-way tickets.  Then once you are ready to leave after the launch or after it has been rescheduled, find the cheapest flight from Orlando and book it.  You sometimes pay a bit more here but if it isn't more than the change fee plus any fare differences then you have come out ahead.  This has never happened to me but I would hate to be there for the launch only to have it rescheduled for the day I had to fly home. So close and yet so far.
For rental cars and hotels, I use Hotwire and Priceline.  If I'm traveling by myself, I get the cheapest car I can find.  If I'm with a group I get a car large enough for our needs but understanding we are splitting the costs. 

I also am not picky on hotels.  I don't book more than one night at a time and I use Hotwire and Priceline to find the best deals.  Since I don't care whether I'm in a Motel 6 or a Marriott I pretty much take whatever comes up.  This does mean you are in a different hotel every night but it also means you save a lot of money.  Titusville, FL has very few hotel rooms so getting a cheap one is difficult around the launch date but if the date changes you can often find great last minute deals much closer to KSC.

Despite the best planning, there are no guarantees.  The key thing is how committed are you?  How many days are you willing to invest and how much money are you willing to spend.  Be sure to figure that out first.  Even with the best planning things change and you may not see anything.

I am working on plans to take a group to a private viewing location in Titusville.  This spot really works out well and provides a great view.  The only downside is the sound is not nearly as impressive since you are 12 miles away but it is the best place after the press site and Causeway locations.  If you are serious about attending a launch and are willing to invest some money, feel free to contact me.

You might also want to go ahead and enter the ticket lotteries with KSCVC.  If you are committed to going then it doesn't matter if you go to a private viewing site or you get Causeway tickets.  The number of tickets each person is limited to is 6.  If multiple people can get 6 Causeway tickets in the lottery then there is a better chance more folks going can see the launch closer.  The only downside is you would need to front the initial ticket purchase as you only have so many hours after being selected for tickets to make a purchase before your buying opportunity expires.  If you get stuck with too many tickets there is always eBay.

These trips unravel quickly if many people express interest only to back out after being pressed to commit both time and money.  Make those commitments now to make every one's planning a bit easier.

Here's to a successful final launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS 135!  Wait, I've heard that before at STS 132.