The most spectacular event I’ve witnessed is the evening launch of the space shuttle Discovery. And, someone I knew was in the pilot seat. That made it even more intense and dramatic for me and two friends, John and his ten year old son, Connor.
The commander of Discovery for that mission was Mark Polansky, nicknamed Roman, and he invited John, Connor and me to watch the launch of his second space flight. John and I were in Roman's U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School class at Edwards Air Force Base. We both had watched shuttle launches, day and night, but this would be Connor’s first.
Since I was developing an interest in filming documentaries, I thought this was a great subject for a film—a father and son “road trip” to Kennedy Space Center. So, I lugged my Panasonic DVX 100A video camera to Florida and met John and Connor at the Ramada Inn outside Orlando. We all crashed in the same room, and got up early to tour our nation’s space port.
Even if there is no orbiter mission scheduled, Kennedy Space Center is a terrific place to visit on a Florida vacation. There are IMAX theaters, a huge Apollo control room “theater” where you can watch films from the moon missions, an International Space Station full-scale model you can walk through, a solemn and beautiful memorial for all the astronauts who have given their lives, and many more attractions.
Another spot that John and Connor enjoyed was the Astronaut Hall of Fame. You can spend hours in this behemoth building enjoying breath-taking films, checking out actual Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules, and experiencing the cool sensations of riding in a full motion space flight simulator or “moon walking” across a lunar landing zone. One of Connor’s favorite activities during our tour was the astronaut candidate testing capsule. Connor sailed through the rigorous check ride and is now prepared, in a year or two, to apply to NASA for a position as Roman’s co-pilot on his next out-of-this-world adventure.
Following our exciting and educational tours, we had to take a several mile bus ride from KSC to the launch viewing area. Guess what the number of our bus was? Nope, it wasn’t 7 or 11, it was 13! When we saw that, we wondered if the launch would scrub due to bad weather or maintenance problems. John could only stay in Florida for a few days before his job as a FAA flight test engineer called him back to duty in Seattle, and a scrubbed mission probably meant a missed opportunity for Connor.
There were several dozen buses transporting all the folks to the sandy beach area on the Atlantic Ocean inlet across from the shuttle launch facility. Although it was December, the temperature was nice, just a little bit of a chill. We stopped for a hot chocolate and a bag of peanuts and then searched for a good spot. There were groups of people sitting under hefty white canvas tarps, and many others settled into lawn chairs strategically placed along the open areas of the beach.
Of course, we had to stop at a space toy stand and let Connor admire the radio-controlled shuttle models, inflatable rockets, and associated accessories. John bought a few post cards to mail to family members back home in Minnesota. We walked a half mile or so, and saved some seats in a stand of metal bleachers. An hour before launch, I filmed John giving a last pre-launch update, and then captured scenes of families and children waiting for a dazzling display of human daring and ingenuity.
I wanted to film Discovery rising into the evening sky exactly the way Connor would see it. With Connor standing up on one of the highest sections of the bleachers, I practiced several times zooming the camera from his perspective to a close up of the shuttle. We were about six miles away, but the zoom on the DVX still gave a clear image of the glistening, futuristic orbiter and its two solid rocket boosters.
The loudspeakers around us carried the voice of the NASA narrator, and he counted down to the final seconds. At about 30 seconds to go, Connor asked if he could join John on the beach to watch the spectacle with his dad. I nodded it was okay and away he flew to John’s side. I zoomed onto Discovery.
Words are impossible to find to accurately describe the sight and sound of a space shuttle roaring brilliantly into a darkened sky. You see the flash of light as the boosters ignite, and then it’s literally like the sun climbing abnormally fast to begin a new day. The horizon lights up, and seconds later you hear and feel the rumble of the rockets as they ferociously turn millions of pounds of volatile fuel into incredible billows of smoke and fire. Through my camera viewfinder, it seemed I was following a glittering diamond of light rising rapidly and majestically, first through the clear night, and then radiantly piercing a misty deck of iridescent clouds. This was a vision that billions of souls in centuries past would never believe we were capable of fulfilling. And I was filming it!
When the man-made star disappeared from sight, with the narrator still telling us what was happening to Roman and his Discovery crew, I pulled John and Connor into a well-lighted area next to the bleachers, and let them laugh and talk about how much they enjoyed the launch. This was father and son joy at its best, and Connor was visibly impressed with what he had just witnessed.
On the bus ride back to Kennedy Space Center, I rewound the tape back to Discovery’s ascent and showed it to everyone sitting around us. The footage looked fantastic. One of Roman’s crewmember’s parents was sitting behind us, and they asked to see the thrilling scene several times. I was pretty proud of myself….
We decided to stop in the gift shop before going to the rental car. In the middle of hundreds of shoppers, we met another U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School Class 86-B classmate. So, I had to show Kessey the footage several times and also his parents and wife. I kept rewinding the footage and then showing it again in the camera viewfinder. Kessey’s wife wanted to see it “one more time,” but their toddler started to cry after the long day and night, and I didn’t get to show it that last time.
After our goodbyes, we walked though the security gates and out to the car. Along the way, I filmed John and Connor talking more about the launch and kidding around with each other. Later, in our hotel room, I hooked the DVX up to our television to watch my outstanding footage for the first time on a big screen. Everything was looking sharp up to the 22 second point. Much to my dismay and disgust, the scene abruptly shifted to John and Connor in the parking lot! After a minute or so, there was another sudden switch to a distant Discovery rising into the night. John and Connor looked at me in disbelief. I filmed over the launch; how did this happen?
During several hours of gut-wrenching reflection, interrupted by waves of nausea, I figured it out. I had rewound the tape in the gift shop and then shot the parking lot scenes without playing the segment again; a devastating, unrecoverable, rookie mistake. What would I do now? I didn’t have a film without the launch footage.
When I got back home, I reviewed all the mini-DV tapes. There was tons of good stuff, and I desperately wanted to put something together, a life-long video memory for John and Connor. Then I remembered that NASA had websites for each shuttle mission. Eventually I found High Definition video of Discovery, and used it in the initial version of the film. But something was missing, there wasn’t anything sharing with the audience what John and Connor actually saw and heard.
John had a tiny digital camera that he used to take pictures during the trip. Investigating the files I downloaded from the camera, I found the video he took of the launch using the miniscule device. There was also audio of John talking to Connor I didn’t pick up from my position high in the bleachers. I spent hours applying filters to the grainy footage and low-quality audio, and finally, about 4:00 am after an all-day and all-night session in front of my computer, my non-linear editing program rendered an impressionistic portrait of John and Connor’s perspective of Discovery taking off into the Florida sky.
I placed the new file alongside the NASA High Definition video, and this gave the audience a dual presentation of the launch—our vantage point from six miles away and the close-up angle for the NASA cameras. I combined the audios from both to get an interesting mixture of what we heard and the sounds the NASA microphones recorded as the rockets burned their way into orbit.
I finished the film and entered it in a number of film festivals. “Friends in Discovery” premiered at the 2008 Bayou City Independent Film Festival, and later screened at the Los Angeles International Children’s Film Festival. Over 200 public, educational, and governmental television stations have requested a copy for potential broadcast. I wrote the lyrics for the film's signature song, Discovery, and my friend Gustavo composed the music and performed the song for the music video segment of the documentary. Our song made it into the finals of the 2008 Garden State Film Festival movie music competition.
You can learn more about Gustavo by reading an article I posted earlier, "An American Missionary," and by visiting his website at www.gustavorenovalez.com. He is an outstanding composer, singer, and guitar player.
A two minute "trailer" Windows Media Video for the documentary, and the mp3 file for our song Discovery, are attached below this story under "Related Files." Just click on the links to watch the introduction for "Friends in Discovery" or hear the music. You can download the film, FOR FREE, via the download area at www.crossandflagproductions.com. There's more photos of our trip in my vault.
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Hey, don’t tell anyone I filmed over the launch. That is just between you and me, okay?