As I look out on this wintry day in Fillmore County, it seems odd to think that just a few days ago my family was in sunny Florida for the lift-off of the space shuttle Endeavour. Our adventure began in September when a letter arrived from NASA. It was an invitation to the launch and landing of the Space Shuttle Mission STS-97. It seems that the flight crew is provided with a limited number of invitations for their friends and family. I am fortunate enough to have grown up with the man who would pilot this mission.
Lieutenant Colonel Michael J. Bloomfield, USAF started out in the same elementary school that I did, Lake Fenton Community School in Fenton, Michigan. I've known Mike since second grade and I always knew he was one to watch. Our friendship bloomed in the years we were in band together, he played the French horn and I played the clarinet. It was a small band and we were a close knit group. Mike and I held the title of Champion Euchre team for the four years we were in High School. When Mike went off to the Air Force Academy shortly after graduation we stayed in touch. I got married and moved to Minnesota. He got married and moved to Texas. Now we send Christmas cards.
If I had to select any person I know to represent the United States, it would be Mike. He is genuinely a great guy. Honest, wholesome, a family man who regularly attends church; integrity to spare. Mike always seemed to have a direct line to God. He did what was right and stayed away from things that were not. He was a National Honor Society student, first string football player, participated in student government, photographer for the school paper and yearbook. As I look back he sounds too good to be true. I also wonder how he had time for all that when I barely made C's.
I spoke to Mike's mom shortly after his arrival at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, six years ago. She told me one of the first things out of his mouth was, "Mom, there are astronauts here!"
Hard work and perseverance seem to have paid off. Mike graduated from the Air Force Academy and was an F-l6 pilot until he got the nod from the Space Program. Being selected for astronaut training is one thing, but actually completing the program is something else entirely. I have seen a little of the rigorous training and testing these people are put through, Underwater training, anti-gravity flights, G-force simulators, emergency evacuation baskets; it's not for the faint hearted. But I'd like to see an astronaut make a two day car trip with a busy three year old. That's not easy either.
Once my husband, Brian, and I decided to make the trip, the rest was easy, We arrived at Kennedy Space Center shortly after noon on November 30. The launch was scheduled at 10:06 p.m. and there already was an electricity about the place. Even though launches have been scrapped just before lift-off, it seemed that this mission was coming together perfectly. The weather was good, and there didn't seem to be any technical problems. Having said that, let me clarify that NASA and the Kennedy Space Center are separate entities. NASA is strictly concerned with the launch of the shuttle. Kennedy Space Center is a private company, which for a fee provides tourists with a little education regarding the space program. When I have spoken to the people at NASA, they were extremely helpful and friendly. KSC staff seemed short on information and patience. The center itself is not terribly "user friendly." There were more people walking around with puzzled looks than not. We were thankful Brian was able to get most of our questions answered at the information desk early in the day because near closing time the information desk line exceeded all the lines for the attractions.
The IMAX presentation at KSC is worth putting up with a little confusion. The movie walked us through the steps an astronaut goes through to train for a mission. It also had quite a bit of information regarding the current mission. We learned that it takes the Shuttle 90 minutes to orbit the earth at a speed of 17,000 mph. STS-97 would be the first shuttle to visit the permanently manned International Space Station (ISS). While in space, the Endeavour crew will dock with ISS and spend the next five days assembling the 18-ton solar electrical power system which they carried in their payload bay. The solar arrays are made of lightweight fabric that are cantilevered. When unfurled they are 28 stories tall. However when packed for transport they are contained in a box seven inches tall. I'd like to be able to pack for a trip like that.
Once deployed the solar arrays will capture the sun's energy and begin the process of converting it into power for the Station. The arrays will supply 105 kilowatts - enough to light a town- and will connect the labs, living quarters, payloads and systems equipment. To complete the connections, Mission Specialists Carlos Noriega and Joseph Tanner will perform two spacewalks. The crew will also install batteries to provide power when the station is in the Earth's shadow, about one-third of every orbit, to compensate for the time the Station will spend in darkness. The batteries will store energy gathered by the solar arrays during the sunlit portion of time and will supply the energy to power the station,
Before leaving KSC we had been given strict instructions to be back by 6:00 PM to wait in line for entrance onto the causeway where those with friends and family passes were to park. We were back on time and proceeded through three check points. At the second check point the two cars in front of us were turned away. No pass. This made us a little nervous, but when it was our turn the "pink card" on our dashboard was enough to permit access onto the causeway. We felt very special.
From our vantage point we were able to see the shuttle even though it was six miles away. The Banana River acts as a sentinel, keeping the crowds a safe distance from the launch site. The waters of the Banana River and the Atlantic Ocean are heavily patrolled on the days of a launch, not only for security of the Space Program but also for the safety of the public. The waters of the Atlantic can get turbulent from the tremors caused by the force of the lift-off.
When we arrived on the causeway and parked our vehicle there was an atmosphere similar to a tailgate party before a Packers/Vikings football game. The crowd was very friendly and there were children running all over the place. We parked directly behind a SUV that was stocked with enough food and drink to serve twice its interior capacity. The driver of the vehicle had been Mike's roommate at the Air Force academy. A man with a motorhome had somehow hooked up to closed circuit TV at the launch site. We were able to catch glances of the astronauts as they prepared for lift-off. It was now T-3 hours.
There were loud speakers regularly spaced so we could monitor the conversations between the astronauts, the ground crew, and mission control. The protocol in place is phenomenal, and it was especially exciting for those of us who know Mike, because being the pilot, he did a lot of the communicating. At T-9 minutes and holding we all listened as this is the last scheduled hold in the countdown. When the count resumed at T-9 minutes and counting, we knew we'd be seeing the lift-off. Talk between the astronauts, ground crew, and mission control changed from all business to excited thank-yous and farewells.
The crowd became busy as all prepared their own perfect spot for the launch. I chased my husband and three year old between the rows of cars saying something motherly like, "Hurry up, or we'll miss it. "