A Launch to Remember (Part 10)

The launch of Endeavour is now scheduled for Monday, May 16—this coming Monday! We want to be there, in case it actually launches. We want to be there because we’re part of the press corps for STS-134. Doug has media credentials for the first time, in hopes of gathering material for Knox Magazine. Anna has media credentials, as she did for the not-launch of Discovery in November. Our article based on that trip to Florida last year appears in the new issue of Chapman Magazine.

We want to be there so much that, unless NASA finds a problem before Saturday, we’re heading back to the Cape. Yes, we’re going back! We’ve written before about being a writing couple, about doing writing together and working on our separate projects as a couple. STS-134 has made us a couple of writers in a new way.

The morning after we landed in Orlando, we headed over to the Badging Office at Kennedy Space Center (KSC). Then, we flashed our badges and IDs at the gate and proceeded to the Press Center, across the street from the looming Vehicle Assembly Building where the shuttle is mounted to the external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters before making its way to the launch pad on the crawler.

Even though it was launch day, the Press Center was relatively quiet when we first arrived. Still, the television cameras and trucks made it clear that this launch was getting far more media attention than any in recent memory. The main building is set up classroom style, with long desks facing the counter behind which the press officers sit, stand, and answer phones. The flags of countries participating in the International Space Station hang overhead. When we requested a desk, we were assigned to a shared desk in the press annex building.

Doug and STS-133 Astronaut Michael Barratt

We had missed the rollback of the Rotating Service Structure the night before, and the sign-up sheet for the astronaut walkout was already full, with 150 names. We jotted our names on the overflow sheet, just in case. And we signed up for a few astronaut interviews, including one with Michael Barratt (see HERE). The launch was still hours away at 3:47p.m.

By 7a.m., other journalists began streaming in, huddling in small groups, checking Twitter, asking questions, and creating a palpable buzz. Jay Barbree from NBC, who has been covering the space age since Sputnik, made appearances all weekend. And a young whippersnapper was at the astronaut walkout (yes, we waved to the STS-134 in their orange launch suits!), piecing together shots for his segment on CBS Sunday Morning. Reporters from Houston’s NPR station, an Arizona television affiliate, a website in New Zealand, Florida newspapers, and science magazines like Physics Today were in the mix too.

The press people behind the counter handled the hubbub in stride. They answer whatever question is lobbed their way. In fact, at one point, they worked our question about how many launches have been delayed, and Allard Beutel explained to us the difference between a scrub—which is a delay announced after tanking—and a delay. Candrea Thomas helped coordinate a phone interview for us (more on that interview in a future post). The press officers, however, don’t answer questions they aren’t asked. They don’t volunteer information.

STS-134 Crew Walkout

That works pretty well because the journalists ask a lot of questions and also share information. We have come to see journalists (though perhaps not photographers, who are a different sort) as collaborative. A pack? A flock? A herd? Sure, some probably keep secrets, and others have more in-depth knowledge than the rest of us need. But for the most part, word—about the time of the next press briefing, the president’s motorcade, the location of the food truck—gets around the Press Center quickly. Maybe journalists are generous folk who realize the person at the next desk is underpaid too. Maybe the old pros recognize that there are first-timers who need a little orientation, if only so as to not hold the whole group back. Or maybe the press knows that secrets can’t be kept for long; once they file the story or post that tweet, they want to do a favor for the person at the next desk, in hopes that what goes around comes around.

Those who have been through this situation before have an ease about them, but they are still anxious not to miss anything. Anyone might hold a potentially interesting or important tidbit. Friendships don’t seem to grow at the Press Center, but camaraderie forms. Before one press briefing, we talked with the reporter from KOLD and the writer for Physics Today. The television news guy had never been to KSC before. The science writer had been holed up in the Press Center on nine (yes, 9!) previous occasions without ever seeing the space shuttle get off the ground.

When the scrub was announced, we all felt a little buzz—the scrub was a news story to get out—and a lot of disappointment. We hadn’t planned to leave for a few days, but the rest of the press had to decide whether to stay until Monday or go. In the first moments, most resigned themselves to leaving and started making escape plans for that afternoon. But within a couple of hours, many convinced themselves and their editors of staying. They wandered in and out all weekend, until Sunday’s press briefing (where we asked questions!) announced a longer and indefinite delay. The next day, the Press Center was almost empty.

We wonder how many of the same journalists will return for Endeavour’s launch, now scheduled for Monday. The media credentials—the mission badge—are good for STS-134, no matter when it launches. Thomas Jefferson touted the importance of the press for democracy and for individual improvement. But we’ve heard nothing about Representative Gabrielle Giffords attending for the second attempt, so that will likely limit the wider appeal of the story and editors’ willingness to pay for airfare, lodging, and a rental car. Weather at Cape Canaveral on Monday doesn’t look fantastic, with isolated thunderstorms predicted, and one never knows what else could delay the launch again. Some press will be there, of course, but many more news organizations will hold out for the last launch, which is scheduled for this summer. The date for that one is up in the air because of Endeavour’s delays. It’s really difficult to predict when news will happen, and that’s why we’re packing our bags.


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