Preparing for STS-132

On Friday, I will be attending the STS-132 Space Shuttle launch, the final scheduled flight of Shuttle Atlantis.

Over Christmas, Rosa and I talked about following our desires. Too often, I miss opportunities to do what I want to do because I don’t take the steps necessary to secure them. Out of inertia, I miss life passing by.

So I decided that I have wanted to watch a manned space launch. This desire has grown over the last year as I started reading more and more about the Apollo program. In North America, this means the Space Shuttle, as it is the only man-rated launch vehicle. Looking at the schedule, the STS-132 mission to the International Space Station was the best fit for my schedule and racing activities.

Once decided that I would go, I began to make plans.

There was a seat sale on Air Canada that covered the May launch window, so I immediately booked for May 13-17. That provides me more time to see the launch on the 14th, visit the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), and also account for any postponements or scrubs due to weather or other minor issues.

Next, I began to research how to get tickets for viewing. It turns out, there are three ways. The first way is to Twitter, which will enter my name into a lottery pool for the VIP viewing area that is not open to the public. Alas, I did not win a VIP ticket. Next, there is a tour operator that was accepting bookings. Third, tickets are also available from Kennedy Space Center.

The tour operator, Central Florida Tours (CFT) has exclusive access to a set number of tickets, and they start selling them before the KSC ticket sales start. CFT will pick you up at a designated spot, bus you to KSC, then bus you out to the causeway viewing area and return you at the end of the day. Other tour operators apparently get their tickets from CFT.

I bought tickets for the causeway (the nearest public viewing area – about 6 miles away from the launch) from CFT, which meant I was guaranteed to have a seat. The price is higher that directly from KSC. And the pick up for me is 7:00am in Titusville, which is very early, but others are being picked up in Orlando as early as 5:30am. The launch is 2:20pm.

I also waited to buy a ticket directly from KSC. It costs less and is more flexible from a timing point of view. Both include a 2-day pass to Kennedy Space Center, so I can see the museums.

The KSC tickets went on sale on a Thursday in April. However, the KSC ticket web page was not ready for the influx of people. On the day of the ticket sales, their web servers crashed. The sales were postponed from Thursday to Monday, and they moved to another server cluster would be able to handle the traffic. Everyone wants to get to see one of the final three launches. It is not likely that anyone will be getting in to see the final flight, as it will mostly be VIPs. It will be the end of the nearly 30-year flight program.

On following Monday, I tried again, but was not successful. There are only about 5,000 tickets for the causeway, and they were sold out in 20 minutes. So I will stay with the ticket I bought from CFT.

Next, I needed a place to stay. I waited too long and many of the hotels were already booked. I managed to get a room at the Super-8 in Titusville. I also contacted some dear friends that Rosa and I met during our trip to Eastern Europe over Christmas. They live in Cocoa Beach, about 30 minutes south. They were very amenable to have me stay with them in their guest suite. I am really looking forward to meeting them again – they were so good to talk with in December. I cancelled my Super-8 room. I also rented a car. Strangely, the price was higher when I tried to book through Ericsson‘s travel agency. I had assumed that there would be a corporate discount.

Now comes the part that I spent a lot of time thinking about and investigating. I want to capture this very special day somehow. I starting thinking about photography, but I also considered video. If I wanted to record video, then I would need a Canon 7D instead of my current Canon 40D. I spent hours and hours and hours investigating renting the 7D, lenses, microphones and tripods. I investigated rental agencies in Orlando, by mail in the US and also the Canadian alternatives.

After much consideration and playing with the finance numbers, I decided to buy the Canon 7D and sell some older equipment, such as the 40D. This will allow me to either take great photos or shoot full 1080p HD video. If I rented the 7D instead, then that money would be wasted as I did assume I would eventually move to the 7D. The money I would have spent on the rental of the 7D body instead could be spent on the purchase.

For the rest of the equipment, I continued to investigate all the options for rentals. In the end, the best price and convienence was through Lens Rentals Canada. I ordered a Canon EF 100-400mm L IS USM lens. According to the extensive research I’ve done on the web, lens that are longer risk being impacted by the turbulent, hot air of a sunny Florida afternoon. I rented a Canon EF-S 10-22mm wide angle zoom too. I have been thinking about this lens for some time now, but it is expensive – about $1000. By renting the lens, I can see if I like it. Unlike renting the 7D body, I am not sure about this lens, so renting first was a good idea. I was 100% sure I would eventually get the 7D.

I also rented a Gitzo aluminum tripod and video head. I am torn between wanting to video record the launch with the 7D (the reason I bought it in the first place), or taking still photos. A video would be a great record and I would not need to keep the camera to my eye. HD video is only about 2 megapixels. Stills will be higher quality (the 7D is 18 megapixels) but would mean I watch the launch through the video finder (or the back of the camera). With video, I would keep use the Live View feature and only need to glance over to just track the action.

I still don’t know what I will do.

The two lenses and the tripod arrived on Friday. On Monday, I bought an external microphone and a Kata backpack camera bag at Henrys.

To keep track of what to do and where to go, I joined the Facebook groups for the Kennedy Space Center and for the Attendees of Launch of ATLANTIS STS-132 May 14th 2010.

I also signed up for Twitter to follow information about ticket sales from KSC.

Looking today at the weather, NASA indicates that the weather is 70% for a launch. And the count-down clock has started.

I am so amazingly excited about this trip. I hope I don’t forget something. For our trips, Rosa has been there as a backup “fact-checker” to double check. This time, I’ll be alone as Rosa will be in ballet classes.

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