Crowd viewing the STS-120 launch at the KSC VIP siteTwo years ago today, on October 23, 2007, I earned my space enthusiast wings: I viewed the launch of the STS-120 Shuttle mission at Kennedy Space Center.

It all started in late July when ESA astronaut and STS-120 crew member Paolo Nespoli, of Italian nationality, invited some friends and me to view his launch at KSC. We had met him in previous years, when he took part to outreach events at the planetarium of Milan, the largest in Italy, for which we work. He was also going to fly a small flag with our planetarium logo onboard Discovery (item 70 in the STS-120 Official Flight Kit Manifest).

When Nespoli invited us, we carefully and thoroughly evaluated our schedules, considered all issues, thought “yeah, after all, somebody has got to do it, why not?”, and finally accepted. The whole process took approximately 0.0012 seconds, possibly less.

As Nespoli’s guests, we took part to ESA’s official events together with his family and friends such as a KSC tour, briefings and dinners. I kept reading on license plates that Florida is the sunshine state, but the sky told a different, rainy story up to the day before launch. And a friend’s experiences reminded something important about Shuttle launch schedules: he tried to view several launches at KSC over a period of a dozen years, but was never
successful due to scrubs.

This was our first launch, and it didn’t disappoint. Florida turned out to indeed be the sunshine state.

Launch day was awesome, from both a weather and an emotional point of view. We viewed the launch from the Banana Creek VIP site next to the Saturn V Center. Sitting behind me on the viewing stands there was a retired Grumman employee who worked on the Apollo LM. A NASA photographer caught me in awe in the image above (I’m the one at right), which is a small portion of a larger photo (original NASA story).

The launch was a rich sensory and emotional experience. Pictures and videos are just not enough, you have to be there.

What surprised me most is what happened at launch and later. As a space enthusiast, you are familiar with the typical succession of scene cuts of Shuttle launches seen on NASA TV. But when you are there, you have to be your own director and quickly — very quickly — learn to use your eyes to view a completely new scene with a much wider field of view and rich, vivid stimuli.

My trip to Florida was made even more unforgettable by other experiences. A group of friends and fellow members of Forumastonautico.it, the largest Italian online space community, had independently organized a trip to KSC for the launch (they got an additional treat, a Delta II launch on October 18, 2007). We had a really great time together.

With the Forumastronautico.it friends we had dinner with Damaris Sarria, a young and enthusiastic engineer who works at KSC and maintains the blog How I Am Becoming An Astronaut. We had interviewed her for AstronautiCAST, Forumastronautico.it’s podcast (original interview in English, MP3 file).

I recently found that space tweep @absolutspacegrl was on console at MCC in Houston for STS-120. And Nespoli’s crew member Scott Parazynski even
joined Twitter as @SPOTScott. I guess @flyingjenny lubed and tuned Discovery’s thrusters for STS-120. Were you also involved in STS-120? Did you view the launch at KSC? Let me know in the comments.

After STS-120, Nespoli was assigned to the Expedition 26/27 crew currently scheduled for launch in November 2010 onboard a Soyuz from Baikonur.
Hmmm… how cool is that (no pun intended)?