Watch a Shuttle Launch With Your Grandchildren

Counting down to liftoff lifts the spirit like nothing else

By Lisa Sonne

Ten, nine, eight…. The crowd noises quiet, as young and old on a Florida causeway look toward the space shuttle on the distant launch pad.

Seven, six, five, four…. Grandparents and grandchildren hold their breaths in anticipation.

Three, two, one, zero…. Almost 7 million pounds of thrust shoot the rockets and shuttle up with huge plumes of steam and smoke and a brilliant swath of flames beyond any fireworks.

“We have liftoff!” People hug and high-five and yell out their cheers — a shared moment of human achievement.

“It’s very bright, like trying to look at the sun,” says Terry Wall of Huntsville, Ala., watching with his son Travis, 10, and Travis’s Oma (German for grandmother). She remembers Sputnik, 50 years before, and wanted to share “our common interest” of outer space with her grandson, an astronaut wannabe. The family drove 12 hours from Alabama to witness the event in person.

“It does humble one to see that kind of power with the naked eye,” says Wall. “TV just can't give you the same experience.”

Travis is glad to share his space trip with his grandmother. “The launch was one of the most exciting things we have done together. It would have been fun without my Oma,” he concludes, “but it was more fun with her.”

Shuttle Countdown Days Are Numbered

Opportunities to share the thrills of space shuttle launches are on their own countdown to extinction. The only NASA-operated vehicles to carry humans to space in the 21st century are being retired in 2010.

For the next couple of years though, you can still enjoy a countdown trip with your grandkids. The shuttles named Endeavor, Atlantis, and Discovery are slated for future missions to build the International Space Station (ISS) or to service the Hubble Telescope.

The pleasures of being present for launch don’t end at liftoff. Keep watching as the shuttle climbs: About two minutes later, you may be able to see the reusable solid rocket boosters drop away and begin their fall to the ocean.

Sometimes you can feel the sound waves of the tremendous force of take-off. It will happen moments after you see the lift-off, since sound travels slower than light.

Good to Go

Astronauts often say they are “good to go” when they are completely ready. The more prepared they are, the better they’re able to enjoy exploring space. The same can be true for your trip to a shuttle launch.

You can watch a launch from many free viewing locations, including public parks, beaches, and causeways. You might want to bring folding chairs, bug spray, sunglasses, sunscreen, drinks, and snacks. Check out proximity to bathrooms. Don’t forget toys, books, and games to keep everyone amused during the long countdown.

Think about whether a day or night launch will be better for your grandchildren, and what the weather will be like. Crowds are usually smaller if it’s not vacation time. Getting to your spot hours early avoids being stuck in launch traffic.

Launch dates can change by months or days depending on equipment and the weather. Make flexible travel arrangements. Plan to view the launch early in your visit to allow for contingencies, and discuss the possibility of delays with your grandchildren.

Astronaut Photo Tips

It’s natural to want to go home with incredible photographs, but veteran astronaut Steve Smith recommends not trying to photograph the launch itself. Instead, he urges you to focus on enjoying the experience with your grandchildren.

“NASA does a great job, and you can get the stills and video from them later,” he says. “From the moment the engines start until the shuttle is a dot in the sky, it’s about nine seconds.

“If you want to take an interesting picture and you have a tripod, put the camera or video camera on the tripod and face it toward you,” Smith suggests. Capturing your reactions together as a family will be “much more interesting!”

Before or After Launch

Most of the launch viewing sites are on or near one of the country’s largest wildlife refuges. Manatees and crocodiles have been spotted in the rivers, and dolphins in the ocean. On the way to some viewing sites, there’s an eagle’s nest the size of a mattress in a tree that you can see from the road.

Grandchildren and grandparents who want to see if they have the “Right Stuff” to be an astronaut can experience multiple G-forces at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville. Visitors can also strap into a harness that simulates moon gravity.

The Shuttle Ride Experience at Kennedy Space Center is as close as most people will get to knowing what a real launch feels like. During the briefing phase, stand in the line to the far left if you want to be seated in the back row for more pitch and intensity during the ride. For kids who are too little for the ride and those who don’t want to be jostled, there’s a viewing room nearby that offers some of the emotion without the motion.

Putting on the bright yellow frames of the 3-D glasses to watch the IMAX movie about the International Space Station gives you real “perspective” about life in space. It also shows how important the shuttles are for building humans a home in space.

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