MERRITT ISLAND, Florida—The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy describes space as “really big.” Kennedy Space Center (KSC) might be peanuts compared to space but, for human-sized visitors, it’s pretty big. Located on Florida’s Atlantic coast, an hour’s drive east of Orlando’s tourist spots, KSC has been NASA’s site of choice for sending people into space since the 1960s. Covering the northern half of Merritt Island, its 219 square miles are studded with launch complexes surrounded by semitropical nature. Last week, Ars braved KSC’s heat, rain, and crowds to watch Atlantis, and the 30-year Space Shuttle program, head into space for the final time.
Launching rockets over the ocean has quite a few advantages, but it’s also subject to the capricious weather patterns of the Atlantic. Getting something into a specific orbit is more complicated than just kicking the tires and lighting the fires; each day only has a discrete launch window of a few minutes. If it’s raining at the launch site, flight path, or at the various emergency landing sites in France and Spain during that time, no one’s going to space that day. This makes attending a launch somewhat fraught: the weather doesn’t care about anyone’s plans, plane tickets, hotel reservations, or work schedule.
Driving to KSC, things did not look promising. NASA scheduled the launch for Friday, July 8th at 11:26 am, with successive launch windows on Saturday and Sunday. By Wednesday afternoon, the 45th Weather Squadron was predicting a 70 percent chance of delay. To make matters worse, if Friday did have to be scrubbed, Sunday would probably be the next attempt, as NASA wanted to give its teams enough time to get home, rest, and get back again, a process that would be seriously complicated by the hundreds of thousands of expected visitors and the traffic jams they’d bring.