As of 7:43:22 last night, I can officially cross off "See Space Shuttle Launch" from my list of things to do before I die. It was a beautiful day with the actual launch almost perfectly coinciding with the sunset, so it was in shadow on the pad, but came into the sun about 15 seconds into flight. The practical result was that the exhaust contrail was just amazing. Here's a shot of it I found on Flickr, but it was even better in person. The launch director said it was the prettiest launch he's seen, so I guess I picked a good one. About 6 minutes before launch, the gantry walkway and the external tank vent arm retract and that's when you know things are really getting serious. I remember watching this happen on the first Shuttle launch back when I was 6 and I have to admit I got a little teary.
A few things to say about the launch. Was it worth it? Yes, to me it was. It was an expensive week to be down there, but I'm not going to remember the $700 car rental fee when I'm 80, so the hell with it. We ran to our car and were one of the first out of the parking lot, and yet it still took us over 4 hours to drive back to Orlando, a trip which takes about 45 minutes normally. One giant parking lot the whole damn way. That part was a nightmare, I hate traffic. And, I guess our gamble of staying an extra couple of days to wait for the rescheduled launch after the scrub last wed was a good one.
We watched from the Visitors Center which is about 8 miles away from the pads, but where you can't see the pad itself because of the tree line. If I were to do it again I would suggest either watching from the coast on Route 1 which is about 12 miles away or giving your Congressperson free sex to get VIP tickets to the special area about 4 miles away with unobstructed views. Normally it's just friends of the astronauts and visiting dignitaries and such over there. They do sell a very limited number of tickets over the phone, but they sell out in minutes if you can even get through to them.
I don't regret not taking a camera with me except for a couple of good photo opportunities right after the launch. First was the contrail which I linked to above, though even that photo doesn't really do it justice. The second was on the way out where all of the employees of the visitor's center were staggered around the main courtyard away from the crowd all looking up and watching the launch. One of the shouted, "oh no." when the SRB separated about 2 minutes in, but her coworker cooled her out by saying, "no, no, those are just the boosters, that's normal".
There were a lot of people their with cameras, but honestly I didn't get it. A few had 600mm lenses which would do some good from 8 miles away, but most just had Rebels with kit lenses, which really ain't gonna cut it. Maybe it's because I shoot mostly portraits, and my longest lens is 85mm. My thinking is that I'm never going to take a photo that's better than the ones pros have been taking of launches since day one, so I might as well just enjoy the experience. Which I did, very much.