My day started early with a 0330 wakeup. I was on the road to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) by 4, and got there by 5, the announced opening time for the Visitor Center. When I arrived, there was already a lot of people there, picking up their tickets and going inside. It took quite a while for us to all get loaded on the buses (the public turnout was 1,600), and my bus didn't make it to the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) viewing area until 6:15. The 747/Discovery combo was set to take off at 7.
A look at the turnout.
You have to have a little luck in this life. All of the rope line spots facing the runway were already gone, so I found a spot on the southern edge of the public area, which was roped off just north of the VIP viewing platform. I was directly alongside the VIP area, and just to my left were two women who were flight nurses for the shuttle program! One had worked the program since 1994 and knew most of the astronauts. She told me about some of the crews she had worked with (she said most were very nice, but a few crews weren't, and that the last 3 crews were the most special.)
If that wasn't good enough, two astronauts came over to talk to the nurses. Within handshake distance of me were Eric Boe (pilot, STS-133, Discovery's last mission) and Douglas Hurly (pilot, STS-135, Atlantis, the final shuttle mission). I didn't interject but listened intently. The mutual respect was obvious; so was the blazing intellect of both pilots. Col. Boe was in his NASA flight suit with the mission patches and Mach 25 patch, which only made him look more cool. There was a lot of commiserating over the end of the Shuttle program, as you might imagine, but the pride the nurses and the astronauts had in it was plain.
At 6:45 we heard jet noises, and saw Discovery's tail above the treeline, moving towards us. They had planned to do a hold in front of the VIP area for photos. They did so--in the most cluttered area of the ramp!
Cameras everywhere, of all shapes and sizes!
Just before 7AM the 747 began its takeoff roll, and lifted off to the south. It spent about 15 minutes doing overflights of Cocoa Beach, Patrick AFB, the KSC Visitor's Center, and Complex 39 before making one last pass over the SLF runway at 250 ft. AGL:
747 and Discovery setting up the final flypast. The men with cameras were far less in the way than they looked, thankfully.
The money shot. Can't believe this turned out as well as it did (see below for why) but I'll take it!
I should add that I own a telephoto lens, but I packed it with my other photographic equipment in the shipping container, rather than bringing it with me. So I had to take all of my photos with the short zoom on my camera, and at no time on the raw images did the 747 cover more than 35% of the frame size. It's miraculous that I got photos of the quality I did.
One bit of comedy: the announcer was a woman, who seemed to be constantly slow on the uptake as to what the 747 was doing. She announced that the 747 was approaching AFTER it was plain that all of us could see it, not once but twice. "Thank you, Captain Obvious!" was heard up and down the line, and it was the subject of much snickering on the bus ride back to the Visitor's Center!
NASA did great on this day, for the most part. The only screwup was stopping the 747 in the cluttered area, but everything else went perfectly. After the 747 and Discovery left, we all went back to our assigned buses. We had been told before leaving the bus to come back to the same bus when we were done. I expected half of the people to forget their bus number. They didn't. My bus was back at the Visitor's Center less than 25 minutes after the 747 made it's last pass--and that is including the 15-minute drive time from the SLF to the Center. In fact it went almost TOO fast--nothing was open, so I had to go into Cocoa Beach to find breakfast!
All in all, it was an immense privilege to have seen this. Being close to the astronauts was icing on the cake. I'm already making plans to come back out for Endeavour's fly-out (tentatively scheduled for September). This time I'll take the telephoto. I just hope those nurses come back also, and I end up next to them again!