As the seconds on the digital takeoff clock approached zero, adrenaline flowed as the eyes of a thousand onlookers at NASA's Kennedy Center VIP bleachers squinted to watch the three-mile-away Endeavour space shuttle begin to, from a trail of flames and white vapor, slowly rise into the Florida sky.
"It was almost at a 30-degree angle before I heard the sound of the ignition from the rocket launch," said Mike Hopstock. "It sounded like a jet taking off, maybe a half-mile away."
Mike and Donna Hopstock of Lehighton had come to the Kennedy Center in July of 2009 for the opportunity of a lifetime – to view the launch of a space shuttle. The two-week summer vacation focused around their nearly annual pilgrimage to the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America Rally.
Mike had caught a radio report, learning that Mission 127, the launch of the Endeavour space shuttle, would be delayed. Its first and second scheduled launches of June 13 and June 17, 2009, were scrubbed because of hydrogen leaks. The next, third attempt was scheduled for July 11.
That date clicked with Mike, who thought that it would mesh perfectly with his vacation schedule, as the launch date was scheduled for the week before the rally and besides, he had family near the Kennedy Space Center that he hadn't visited since 1964.
"Our original plan was to go to the rally in Tennessee with possibly a trip to Key West and the rest of Florida," Mike said. "Once we found the shuttle was going up during that two-week period, we decided to go."
Mike called his cousin, Donald Hopstock, and asked him if there was any way they could get close enough to view the launch.
"We are only seven miles downstream," Donald replied. "The launch goes off right up our canal. You can watch it from my patio. Let me call you back."
Two minutes later, Donald called back.
"My wife and daughter are tour guides at NASA," he said. "We got you and Donna VIP tickets for the launch. All you do is come to our house and we'll drive you over to the parking lot where the bus comes. The bus takes you to a view of the launch site. You'll sit by a big countdown clock in the bleachers with the families of the astronauts."
With the arrangements set, Mike and Donna boarded their BMW K1200 LT touring bike with a two person popup trailer in tow and set out for two weeks on the open road. After visiting with their son, Steven, a river guide in West Virginia, and checking out the rally site in Tennessee, they headed for Florida.
"We got there on a Tuesday, and the shuttle launch was not until Saturday, July 11," Donna said. "This would be the third try."
The hydrogen leak had been repaired and tested successfully on July 1.
After several days reunited with Mike's family, and a jaunt to Key West, they were ready to view a launch. Because of poor weather, the schedule was pushed forward one day to Sunday.
That day, they boarded the tour bus. While en route, they were briefed that, in the event of an aborted takeoff, as a precaution to fumes blowing in their direction, they may be asked to evacuate to the exhibition center.
The bus stopped at the exhibition center, which was a space museum, which included a complete Atlas rocket in a horizontal position.
"It was two or three football fields long," Mike estimated.
After arriving to their bleacher seats, Mike was impressed by the speaker system.
"You hear what is going on in the control rooms and on the shuttle," he noted. "We heard the pilots in the jets up above checking the wind and the lightning count."
The lightning count is a measure of the number of lightning strikes over the flight area. Even though it was a beautiful day at Kennedy Center, with nine minutes to liftoff, the launch was aborted because of a high lightning count.
On Monday, Mike and Donna went through the same drill, with the same outcome on this fifth attempt. To avoid another repetition of the lightning problem, they were told that the next try would be in two days, on Wednesday, July 15, 2009.
With only two weeks for vacation, and a commitment to the BMW rally, Mike and Donna were torn over whether to stay for the launch. It was an opportunity of a lifetime. They decided to give it one more shot.
From the bleachers, they could see two rockets, nearly three miles away, and across a bay. One rocket was the Endeavour space shuttle, ready to launch on Mission STS-127 for a delivery to the International Space Station. On the other pad was the Discovery space shuttle, ready to launch in August on Mission STS-128.
Mike and Donna could see the shuttle, and although it was the size of a small commercial jetliner, it looked tiny mounted on the enormous first stage boosters.
This time, the launch clock ran to zero, and Endeavour's booster rocket ignited. It was several seconds before they heard the roar, and by then the launch vehicles were well above the launch pad. In less then a minute, the rocket had yawed and pitched and was out of sight, heading for the ISS, with a white plume as its only footprint.
The next day, Mike and Donna bid Florida good bye, and joined their biker buddies at the rally. They particularly liked the evening of German music featuring a live-action coo-coo clock.
Mike and Donna returned to Lehighton having clocked 4,000 miles, during which they enjoyed seeing America, visiting their family, and especially viewing the launch of the Endeavour.
Endeavour, the penultimate space shuttle on its last flight, is scheduled to land next Wednesday. The last flight of any U.S. space shuttle, the Atlantis on Mission STS-135, is scheduled for June 28, 2011.