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Water Mill Teen Celebrates 18th Birthday with a Space Launch

The NASA administrator invited Zoe Strassfield to be his guest for the final launch of space shuttle Discovery.

Editor's Note: The following is a selection from student Zoe Strassfield's journal recorded during her trip last week to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the final launch of space shuttle Discovery. She was invited to be a guest of NASA administrator Charles F. Bolden after she wrote him expressing her support for the future of the space exploration program. Zoe, a Water Mill resident who turned 18 last week, was named a for this and her outstanding academic record.

So this was it, the day that was the whole reason for our trip — and what a day it was!

We had to catch the bus from the main space center visitor complex to the viewing site at Banana Creek at 1 p.m., but we wanted to look around before then, so we headed out around 10:30 a.m. The roads in the area around the space center are remarkably simple and straight, because it’s mostly flat coastal land.

As you get closer and closer to the space center on Interstate 95 (the same I-95 as at home in New York, but you’d have to drive on it for two days to reach Florida), you see signs indicating the exit to take, and you begin to get more and more excited. When you make the turn onto Columbia Boulevard, all the side roads suddenly have space-related names, like Shepard Drive, Space Commerce Way, Vectorspace Boulevard and Grumman Place.

Once you get out on the NASA Causeway there’s water on both sides of the road and you can see the Vehicle Assembly Building in the distance. As the car drove past the Astronaut Hall of Fame, I saw that the LED screen outside the building was flashing “Discovery is GO! Discovery is GO!”

We’d been to the space center the day before, and there definitely seemed to be more cars on the causeway than before, but once we went through the security checkpoint, the traffic lessened. On the way back that night, we were less fortunate — record crowds had turned out to watch Discovery’s final launch and it took us two hours to navigate the causeway in the ensuing traffic jam. As we drove through the main space center gates, images of the crew and the mission patch were everywhere. I caught a glimpse of an alligator in one of the bodies of water alongside the road.

After parking, we checked in at the NASA Guest Operations Center and got our passes for the bus to the viewing site. We still had some time to kill, so we headed for the Shuttle Launch Experience, a ride that simulates being launched in the shuttle. (I figured it would be good to have some idea of what the astronauts would be feeling when I saw them go up.)

The pre-ride video features Charles Bolden, a former astronaut who’s now NASA’s administrator, and the man who invited me to the launch. The ride itself was very, very cool — people always talk about being forced back into their seats by g-forces, but the seats on the ride were specially cushioned, so I didn’t feel much of that. I planned on trying to move my arms at the moment of maximum g-forces, to see how it felt, but I was too engrossed in the video screen overhead showing the simulated astronaut’s-eye-view of launch. When I did try, my limbs sent back the response “You don’t really want to move, do you?” Since actual weightlessness is hard to simulate on Earth, the ride tilts you forward at the point where the shuttle would be in orbit, and the stopping feels weightless in comparison to the force.

After the Shuttle Launch Experience, I headed over to get in line for the bus to the Banana Creek viewing site. While waiting in line, I ended up talking with a man who worked for a company that was building next-generation space capsules for NASA so the wait didn’t seem that long at all. Once we got on the bus, the driver introduced himself and gave us instructions on what to do in the event of an emergency. They weren’t expecting anything to go wrong at launch, but the shuttle contains chemicals that would be toxic if we breathed them in, so if an explosion or some other accident occurred, we were to hurry from the bleachers to the air-conditioned Saturn V Center and await further instructions.

On the bus, we got a better look at the Vehicle Assembly Building as we drove by. It might not have looked very big from the causeway, but it’s more than 500 feet tall and has more interior space than the Pentagon. It had to be that big because it was originally built to be where 300-foot Saturn V moon rockets were assembled. Now it serves the same purpose for the space shuttles, but since they’re smaller, there’s plenty of space.

My dad had never seen a Saturn V rocket before, so I told him to close his eyes when we walked into the Saturn V Center. When he opened them, he gasped, just like I did the first time I saw one at Space Camp. To say that a Saturn V is big is to say that the Sahara is dry or that Antarctica is cold. It’s larger than the Statue of Liberty and the engines alone dwarf a 6-foot man.

We’d been exchanging e-mails with Natalie Simms, whose official title is executive assistant to the chief of staff at NASA headquarters in Washington. She’d arranged to meet us at the Saturn V Center and help us meet Administrator Bolden, so we waited for her to call us as we browsed the exhibits. The families of the astronauts would watch from a separate viewing section along the side of the building, and I saw NASA staffers helping them get settled. In the event of an accident, NASA wants the families to have respectful privacy from tourists and the press.

Finally, Ms. Simms called us to say that she was outside of the Red Cross Command Post near the bleachers. She said she was wearing a brown sweater, so I kept my eyes peeled as I hurried outside to find her. When I saw a short woman with a brown sweater tied around her neck, my eyes lit up.

“Are you Zoe?” she asked. “I’m Ms. Simms.”

I hugged her and thanked her for all of her help. Ms. Simms hurried us through a crowd of people between the bleachers and the tour buses. And then, only a few feet away, I saw a very familiar man with gray hair in a suit talking to a contractor — Administrator Bolden!

Ms. Simms waited until the conversation was over before introducing me. I reached out my hand to shake.

“Mr. Bolden, I don’t know if you remember, but I wrote to you saying the launch was the week of my 18th birthday and you invited me.”

“Oh, Zoe! Glad to see you, Zoe!” he said.

We shook hands and then he hugged me while I told him how excited I was to meet him. Finally, as he left to address the crowd, Administrator Bolden gave me a coin bearing his name and the NASA seal. “Presented By The Honorable Charles F. Bolden, Administrator,” it read.

There was a microphone set up and Administrator Bolden thanked all of the people who’d helped to make the launch possible. Ms. Simms brought me up again to have the official launch photographer take a picture of us. I was beaming. All this, and there was still an hour until launch.

I ended up sitting next to a family who’d been in the same hotel, and I spent the time asking trivia questions about space history to their two young sons in between anxious glances at the large digital countdown clock to our right. We could hear the voice of an announcer over the loudspeakers, describing the preparations for launch. The shuttle’s launchpad was visible across the water, but the gantry structure was in the way, so all I could make out through binoculars was a glimpse of the large orange fuel tank.

At 20 minutes to launch, I suddenly heard “Zoe Strassfield, please report to the Red Cross Command Post” on the loudspeaker. I didn’t know what was going on, but I hurried up and headed over. Some space center workers gave me a glossy photo of the crew, but while we were inside, we heard one voice from mission control announce “Range is red.”

“What does that mean? Who’s got a radio?” We heard all of the workers scramble as they strained to hear further details. It turned out there had been a computer problem, and the countdown was stopped for five minutes while it was fixed. By that time, I was back at the viewing site. When the countdown resumed, everyone cheered.

At five minutes to launch, the loudspeaker instructed everyone to stand up and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I hadn’t been expecting this, but I was happy to participate. At one minute to launch, there was another cheer, and when the final 10-second countdown came, everyone was on their feet, shouting out the numbers in unison.

Through my binoculars, at first I saw no change, but then there was a flash of light and white smoke began pouring out of the launchpad. And then, I saw the shuttle itself rise above the tower, the orbiter, orange tank and white booster rockets like every picture and video I’d ever seen.

On TV, the fire under the shuttle looks yellow or gold, but in person, it was incredibly bright, like a piece of the sun underneath the engines. The fire gave way to coiled gray-and-tan smoke as the shuttle climbed higher and higher.

All of this was in silence. The shuttle was moving so fast that it was already overhead by the time the noise reached the viewing site. The roar shook my hair and body, and pressed my clothes to my skin. People cheered and laughed and the noise was so great that I didn’t hear any of the communication between the shuttle and the control room over the loudspeakers until almost two minutes after launch, when the boosters were ready to separate.

By this point, the shuttle was just a glowing dot at the end of a long trail of smoke that curled to the east, but through binoculars, I could see the separation. The boosters were two small glowing dots that broke off from the main dot and were visible in the same binocular field of view as the main dot of the shuttle for some time.

When the shuttle was lost to sight even through binoculars, the only thing to do was stare at the empty launchpad and listen to the communications chatter until it was announced that the crew was safely in orbit. Gray smoke trailed off the launchpad itself, and the trail that had arched overhead now drifted apart into a pure white zig-zag shape, the different billowing inner layers and clouds of the smoke three-dimensionally visible through binoculars.

When the final engine cut-off was announced, there was another cheer, and everyone began to pack up and head back to the buses. Launch was over and the task of catching up with the International Space Station for the mission had begun. But as I touched the coin again and remembered the thunderous sound, I smiled with the knowledge that my own mission had already been accomplished.

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