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The roof of the largest building in the world, NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, is 515 feet above sea level, 40 +stories high. Look carefully at the left of this photograph taken by Pete Crow at 11:21 am on July 8, 2011. In the distance Atlantis sits on Launch Pad 39A. In less than eight minutes Atlantis would be gone, headed to space for the final time. When Atlantis returns on July 20 or July 21, she will be towed down the road to her permanent home at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center Museum. Atlantis is expected to arrive at the Museum, after much prep work, in 2012.

Photographers on the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) wait for the launch of Atlantis (in distance, far left).

For safety reasons only 40 people are allowed on the VAB roof for launches because escape from the roof is limited.

Although there are five narrow stairways leading from the roof, one on each side of the building and one in the center at the elevator stairwell, only one stairway — the west stairway — is deemed suitable in the event of a mishap on the launch pad. That is because to escape from the roof NASA policy is for escapees to flee as far away from the launch pad as possible before exiting the roof.

No one has ever had to escape the VAB roof and, with the exception of the Challenger tragedy in 1986, no mishaps ever occurred in launching the space shuttles. Challenger broke up over the Atlantic Ocean with the loss of the entire crew. No one on the ground was injured.

Among the 25 or so news organizations NASA granted VAB roof access for the final historic launch from approximately 3,000 accredited media were the Smithsonian Magazine, the Orlando Sentinel and two video and still photographers from Seine/Harbour® Productions, Studio City, California/The Grove Sun, Grove, Oklahoma — Carol Anne Swagler and Peter Michael Crow.

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Pete Crow STS-135 photograph from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building, 11:28 EDT, July 8, 2011. The full sequence of these photographs and those of Carol Anne Swagler will be posted later.


Among the stories and photographs that will be posted are …

1. STS-135 Launch, additional photographs from roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building showing, in sequence, the Launch of the Shuttle Atlantis, OV-04.

STS-135 Mission Patch

2. Days 2 and 3 prior to Launch — this includes briefings on upcoming NASA unmanned launches, visits to the SpaceX launch pad and firing room and much more.

3. Houston, Days 7 and 8 before Launch — this includes inside of the Shuttle Flight Simulators where astronauts trained (now dismantled), Shuttle OV-95 (to be dismantled after landing of STS-135), the International Space Station and Soyuz mockups, and briefing on NASA scientific and technical programs, including the newest Off-Earth Rover vehicle and Robotnaut, the robot now on the ISS which can perform many of the duties currently performed by the 6 astronauts on the ISS.

4. Houston Mission Control — STS-135 mission, Houston’s Johnson Space Center, Monday, July 11 to STS-135’s expected landing in Florida on the morning of July 20.

5. Apollo 13 and STS-107 Artifacts on display at JSC and KSC, including the Apollo 13 Panel which lit up (“Houston, we have a problem …”) and the flight recorder recovered from Columbia/STS-107.
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.”petecrow/NASA” © 2011 by / Peter M. Crow and the Peter Michael Crow Trust and by Seine/Harbour® Productions, LLC, Studio City, California.

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And so the Launch Day (L-0) day begins. I have skipped coming to the Cape on L-1, Thursday, July 7, 2011, because of the rain and because what we wanted to see — the press conferences — were on NASA-TV. We could sit in our kitchen, eat with feet propped. Another reason to skip L-1 was because I had been over to the Cape for three straight days — and this was coming off of two days in Houston at Johnson Space Center last week.

Two Canadian journalists walk in front of the countdown clock about 2:30 am, Friday, July 8, 2011. Like many journalists they paid their way, and drove more than a day to get to the Cape. If the shuttle failed to launch on Friday, they might be able to stay Saturday, but by Sunday they would have to begin their long trek home. The space program is a beacon to young journalists like these kids, and to youth in general. The tiny dot on the far right is Pad 39A and the Shuttle Atlantis..

I was tired. Carol Anne was exhausted, and even skipped L-2 (Wednesday).

By skipping L-1 we did miss the restraction of the Rotating Service Structure, but early in the afternoon we got a call from a friend at the Cape asking us if we planned to miss the driving rain and mud out at Pad 39-A. Unn, the answer was Yes.

I noticed, in going through my notes for the recent launches, that I had also skipped L-1 during the STS-134 launch in May. Must have been tired for that one, too.

11 pm, July 7, 2011 — To the Cape. Carol Anne and I had decided to coast over to the Cape starting at 11 pm. That should put us inside the security bubble by 12:15 am if traffic was minimal as we expected it would be. The unknown factor was how many people would be streaming over hoping to find spots to view the launch outside of KSC. We were betting that in the rain the 1-million expected people would be in no hurry — and we were right.

Traffic on the Beachline, Highway 528, was moving at its accustomed 75-80 miles an hour, complete with the usual tailgaters.

The JSC press crew doesn't always love the Tweeters like I do. For the second attempt to launch on STS-134 the Tweet tent vanished. This time Tweeters autos have been banished to a far away parking lot. No matter -- the Tweeters are also enthusiastic and are one-timers (they do not get to come back a second time). There are only 150 of them and I'm looking for them. It's 3 o'clock in the morning and none are anywhere to be seen. Do you know where your Tweeter is? I don't.

Inside the security bubble, 12:15 am, Friday, July 8, 2011. We wanted to be at the media site by the time the decision was made on tanking. This was the crucial decision — unless they tanked, the mission was scrubbed, but I was sure they would tank and, right on, at 2:01 am they began tanking.

The Tweeters had been banned from the media parking lot and must trudge better part of a half mile to their tent. Good for us, and great for finding a parking spot in the media parking lot. Not so good for the Tweeters, especially if it rains.

By the time we were at the Cape the rain, driving at times throughout Thursday, had abated to a sprinkle. At the media parking lot we were waved through and found a spot in the front row. Carol Anne objected because she planned to sleep, but then re-thought it and decided front row, closest to the media center, was all good especially if it rained. The car stayed in the front row.

The media center, 12:45 am. The media center is deserted with only a skeleton public relations crew. Carol Anne and I walk across the street to the cafeteria taking advantage of a break in the rain. The selection is thin, but we get coffee — something which, inexplicably, the canteen wagon which will show up about 3 am never has.

As we walk back rain begins again. Carol Anne vanishes to sleep in the car and asks me to tell her if the tanking and the mission are scrubbed. “If the mission is scrubbed,” I grumble, “we’re going home. You can figure it out if the car starts moving.”

Clearly more sleep and less coffee is in order. I apologize.

Carol Anne sleeps and the mission is not scrubbed.

3:20 am, the press site.I drift the press site out to the Tweetup tent looking for Tweeters. No luck. I find three young kids from Canada covering their first shuttle launch. They’re pumped. I love their enthusiasm. We swap stories about Los Angeles where one of them lived.

The only action at the Tweetup Tent at 3 am was the Spacevidcast. I think I should know who they are and what they do, but fact is I don't and they were busy broadcasting to godknowswho and taking phone calls. So I waded on through the wet grass and occasional mud, stepping over cables and watching out for nearly invisible ropes.

The Tweetup tent is empty but there’s a broadcast going on just outside the front door. I cannot figure out who they are, and no one seems interested in telling me. I drift on.

It is dark and muddy out here. Cables snake everywhere. Normally I cut across areas, but now I find there are even ropes tied to nearly invisible posts. Dangerous. I decide for one of the few times in my life to obey the rules. I follow the road and the signs and while it takes longer to get back to the media center, I arrive alive.

Androlly. We may be inside the bubble, but son Andrew and his son-to-be wife, Molly,are not going to be. I call them Androlly because they are, in their words, “inside the love bubble” and can be considered, for now, a single entity. However, Carol Anne does not entirely approve. I also have taken to calling our two granddaughters, age 6 and 8, whose last name is “Dagner”, “The Dagnets”. Again, there is not rousing approval.

Andrew and Molly earlier had planned to drive overnight from northern Florida where they both work, and then to bunk at our home in Celebration for the weekend.

But, of course, the Friday launch is so iffy that an all night drive after working all week long.

It is now almost 3:30 am and while they are not exactly missing in action, they are out there somewhere in the dark and we’re not quite sure where.

All sorts of memorabilia are for sale in a small wagon that is always parked in the parking lot, but is rarely open. Long before dawn members of the press were lining up. Another shop selling STS-135 merchandise was located adjacent to the cafeteria. Also, companies like Boeing handed out pins, stickers and notebooks at their desk in the media center. Just drift by and ask.

Wait — here’s an idea! Maybe someone should just call them.

They have stayed in Tallahassee — worked late, read the weather reports and figured it would be a no-go. They’ll be here Sunday if they are right.

4:30 am, Media Press Site. I grow weary of working on revisions in a screenplay, and decide to stretch. In a few moments I am outside gazing at the huge assembly of media trucks in the parking lot and now covering the old site of the Grandstand which was destroyed in a hurricane in 2004.

I grow nostalgic realizing that my time at the Cape and at this media site are coming to an end. I have been covering events here since the final Apollo flight, Apollo 17, in December 1972 — before most people covering STS-135 were born.

I will be here only once more — for the landing of the Atlantis in a couple of weeks. And then, in all likelihood, my visits to the press site, and indeed the use of the press site itself, are likely to be rare.

What really will not happen again is the assemblage of media here this morning. It rivals that first launch I covered, Apollo 17, when 2,200 were accredited. For STS-135 there are probably 3,000, plus another 150 Tweeters.

Nothing that NASA has in the pipeline will be-stir media interest like this again for at least a decade — and perhaps, going the way NASA is going, never again.

4:55 am The Annex. I was exiled to the dreaded Annex during STS-134, the previous launch.

When too many media request workspace, NASA/KSC has a backup building called The Annex. During STS-134 I was exiled to the Annex which has great air conditioning, but feels remote.

I always have work space in the main media center and until STS-134 I had never heard of “The Annex.” Then arriving to cover STS-134 in April 2011, I found myself in it, facing some nice German guy and sitting beside other well-meaning foreign journalists who spoke no English but smiled a lot.

It was not that the Annex was bad workspace — it was actually very good workspace.

But reporting from the Annex was like trying to cover the launch from Bulgaria.

The main media center is alive, throbbing with activitiy and I could learn things there by eavesdropping, something that I, like most journalists, excel at and take pride in.

A woman primps before going on the air in one of the many setups for TV lining the edge of the press site.

Well. There was no one and nothing to eavesdrop on in the Annex unless you spoke Farci. The best thing about that well-turned out dump was it had great air conditioning.

I was curious to see how the Annex was faring during STS-135, and wanted to know who’d managed to get themselves shipped out there — so I stopped by.

The Annex was, as expected, rumpled at 5 am with a guy sleeping on four chairs.

I drifted around and was stunned to find such organizations as UPI stuck in the back row. The rest was to be expected — the usual gaggle of TV stations from places like Honolulu and foreign media from countries I’d never heard of.

5:10 am The canteen wagon. Buried in the parking I see a glow that doesn’t quite look like other satellite trucks. The canteen wagon was supposed to arrive about 3 pm, but it is usually parked behind the media center, and this morning it is no where to be seen.

The Snack Mobile actually had coffeee. it never does. But the Snack Mobile got a new, hard to find spot out in the parking lot instead of just behind the media center. Nonetheless, enough people found it fast enough to drink all the coffee. So, then, the Snack Mobile didn't have coffee. Situation Normal.

I decide to investigate since I’m roaming around aimlessly anyway. Lo and behold, it is the canteen, but since they never have coffee I figure I won’t be interested.

Entry to the wagon is from the back, exiting past the driver who is the cashier. I lean into the front door and ask if she has coffee.

“Yes.”

“Really?” They never have coffee.

“Yes.”

I go inside and find I am standing behind two foreign journalists who are having trouble filling the coffee cups, finding lids, finding the sugar — hell, maybe finding their zippers. Time passes. They continue to dither about one thing and another. They decide to allow me to pass and to get my coffee, so I do. But now they are in front of where the coffee lids are, and they are dithering again.

I smile. They smile. The woman running the canteen smiles.

Eventually I escape with my coffee which, remarkably, is still hot.
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.”petecrow/NASA” © 2011 by / Peter M. Crow and the Peter Michael Crow Trust and by Seine/Harbour® Productions, LLC, Studio City, California.

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3 am, media center parking lot. The parking lot has filled again. We are parked in the front row and four buses have arrived to take those who wish to go out to the astronaut dormitory. The Astronauts will walk out and onto the van to carry them to the pad at a scheduled 5:11 am.

Main Media Center, Kennedy Space Center, 4:29 am, Monday, May 16, 2011. Most think, me too, that a lot fewer media have returned for the second attempt to launch the Endeavour. The first attempt on April 29, was scrubbed about three hours before launch because of a faulty switchbox.

The arrival of the buses awakes me. It is good news. It means the mission is still on, and that the shuttle has been fueled while I slept. It means the Astronauts are still scheduled to launch this morning. We are on a three hour built-in hold. Actual launch is slightly less than six hours from now.

3:15 am media center. Filling up, but nothing like the April 29 launch. In the parking lot we have met friend and fellow journalist Jim Siegel who reports for the Celebration Independent. He took his chances and left after the RSS yesterday. He had no trouble returning to the Cape — little traffic and no line at the security gate.

Carol Anne has dithered, but has now decided to go to the Astronaut walkout. Security check is 3:45 am and the buses head out at 4 am. The coffee truck has arrived — we go over to get some coffee. The coffee again has no coffee.

NBC and CBS have their own buildings on "the mound" which is the high ground at the back of the media site. ABC these days has a rented mobile home type facility parked in the parking lot at the base of the mound. Local TV stations are allowed to park their vans in a reserved part of the parking lot where power and feeds from NASA are piped directly to them. This parking lot was almost full on April 29. When this photograph was taken about 8:30 pm pm May 15, 2011, not so much. ... and yes!, between the trucks the Countdown clock is visible. Beyond the clock, not visible, is Pad 39A where the Endeavour was waiting to be launched.

3:30 am media center. I check on the weather. Candrea K. Thomas, public affairs officer, tells me — still a 30-percent chance of weather problems. Only challenges appear to be some crosswinds. I ask her about chances of an aditional tour of several NASA facilities. Cheerfully, she says she’ll start a list “send me an email” and if I’m around on Tuesday, she’ll see what she can do. I immediately send her an email, then walk back over and tell her it has been sent.

3:45 am. The cafeteria. I have debated whether it is worth the five-minute walk across the street to the cafeteria for coffee. I finally give in and head over. This place, too, is empty. Where is everybody? The cafeteria opened at 1 am “but business has been very light” the cashier tells me. We both agree that many fewer people are returning for the second attempt to launch the Endeavor.

Good news — the cafeteria brews Starbucks. I mainline a couple of swigs of coffee as I walk back and, whoa, finally my headlights come fully on and I am awake.

The media are all here. The Astronauts are at the launch site, Pad 39A. It is a chillier than expected dawn. It is 5:45 am at the Cape.

5:45 am media center. Carol Anne has returned from shooting the Astronauts loading onto the van. She has emailed me using her iPhone a half hour earlier that it is freezing out there. She checks through the media cventer and then heads for the car to go back to sleep. She will re-surface in another hour.

6:30 am Tweetup area. I go looking again for the Tweeters and have finally found them scattered in several bleachers and in chairs. They were allowed in to watch the RSS Sunday morning, and then allowed back into the media center Sunday evening. I find one of the several Tweeters who actually was here before. Supposedly, once you have been here, you are now allowed back, but because Tweeters sometimes cancel too late for NASA to replace them, they invite other Tweeters who have already cleared security. The rules that I have been told, and the experience of this second-time Tweeter don’t quite match, but no matter.

The enthusiasm of the Tweeters is impossible to undermine.

No tent? Who cares!

Long before 5am about eighty Tweeters have settled into two sets of bleachers from all over the world. They are of good cheer. Even returning to find their tent, tables, air conditioning and that neat astronaut suit they could climb up into and have their picture taken is gone doesn't seem to phase them.

Their tables are gone? Who needs tables?

No air conditioning? Who needs it with this kind of weather.

Eighty of the original 150 Tweeters here on the scrubbed April 29 launch are back and their good spirits and elan are undiminished. Allowing them to see the RSS Sunday morning was a major hit, and for them an unexpected surprise.

7:40 am media center. Carol Anne has moved to our workspace in the annex after a large round table I staked out earlier in the morning has filled up. Internet in the main media center is sagging, probably due to everybody being on it.

She asks me where I’m going to watch the launch. “The mound.”

Where you watch the launch really doesn’t much matter — it’s hard to miss when the shuttle launches. We’ve even photographed it from our second story porch in Celebration, FL, forty miles away.

7:44 am media center. The launch clock reads 21 minutes 39 seconds. To actual launch, with the upcoming built-in holds, launch is now 74 minutes away. Here we go.

Following launch, one hour later, is the post-launch press conference, about the time the shuttle will be passing overhead on its first orbit.

If Endeavour launches this morning, we’ll be back at the Cape before 7 am Tuesday morning for the rollover of the shuttle Atlantis (STS-135) from the orbiter processing facility (OPF = the hangar) to the vehicle assembly building (VAB). This will be the final rollover ever, and the beginning of the final launch in the shuttle program.

…. post launch preconferences on gabby giffords and on launch, block house jack king …. coming 1250pm

“petecrow/NASA” © 2011 by / Peter M. Crow and the Peter Michael Crow Trust and by Seine/Harbour® Productions, LLC, Studio City, California.

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