The Science Fiction Writers of America’s annual Nebula Awards weekend started yesterday, and indeed we left home yesterday, but it doesn’t count because the entire day was consumed by travel. But everything went smoothly and we arrived at the hotel around 1:00 AM as expected and were settled and asleep by 2:00.
We awoke this morning at 7:00 to catch the bus to the Space Shuttle launch viewing area. There we met up with the Nebula folks, notably including Mary Robinette Kowal, Cat Valente, Eugie Foster, Laura Anne Gilman, and Jerry Oltion who was wearing the same T-shirt as I (the two-sided one with cats wearing NASA space suits), the bitch.
There was some confusion as to who was on which bus. The Nebula nominees and podium staff, including myself, were on the Short Bus to the VIPs’ Banana Creek launch viewing area, but Kate had been left off the Short Bus list and it seemed that she would have to go to the Causeway viewing area with the hoi polloi. But at the very last minute she was allowed on, yay. Even though our buses didn’t actually get rolling until nearly 10:00, we still got an earlier start than most and encountered no traffic on the way to Banana Creek nor any crowds once we arrived.
The Banana Creek viewing area is where the astronauts’ families and other VIPs watch the launches from. In addition to bleachers for a couple of thousand people and parking for their buses, it also includes the Saturn Building, a major visitor center containing a nearly-full-size replica of a Saturn V booster and many mockups, prototypes, and actual space hardware from the Apollo missions. Also bathrooms, a gift shop, and both permanent and temporary snack bars — all very welcome.
We spent a couple of hours gawking at the exhibits, then had a pretty decent lunch before heading out to the bleachers to claim seats. We’d been warned that the bleachers would fill up starting about two hours before launch, and indeed by the time we (Laura Anne, Kate, and I, later joined by Jane Jewell and Peter Heck) got out there more than three-quarters of the seats were taken. But as the afternoon wore on, people just packed in tighter and tighter. It was sunny but not unreasonably hot, especially since all the women in the party had brought parasols.
It took about three hours to get through the last hour of the countdown, with several scheduled holds and a search for a missing ball bearing, but no major problems occurred and the final countdown from 10 started exactly as scheduled.
I knew exactly what to expect from all the times I’d seen launches on video, including the rushing sound of the water they dump to lessen the blast, the rumble of the engines, and the pants-flapping rush of air and sound that follows a minute behind the sight of the launch. The one thing nothing had prepared me for was how bright the exhaust was. It was nearly as bright as the sun — hard to watch, yet impossible to look away. This can’t be captured on film or video, of course.
The shuttle climbed quickly. I alternated watching through binoculars, naked eye, and camera. Through the binoculars I saw the solid rocket boosters separate and fall away, just barely visible as a couple of tumbling flecks of white. Eventually that massive searing flame was reduced to a tiny bright dot. The Shuttle had become a star. A rising star, something I’d never seen before. It left behind a column of smoke which quickly dissipated, and swarms of disturbed birds.
The huge crowd that had taken all day to build up now all wanted to leave at once. Our bus was poised for a quick getaway, though we nearly lost a wheelchair when the driver failed to lock the back door, so we avoided much of the traffic. Even so it still took a couple of hours to get back to the hotel. Then it was nap time.
So we spent all day on a show that was over in about ten minutes. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Although I must confess that, space geek though I may be, I wasn’t as bowled over by the experience as some. It was still pretty freaking impressive, both the sight and sound and the knowledge that, as John Scalzi said on Twitter, we humans can actually throw people all the way into space and get them back again safely. Hard to come up with anything fictional that’s quite that awe-inspiring.
After a bite of dinner provided by the Nebula committee, I found that I’d been assigned a spot next to Joe Haldeman at the mass autograph signing. I hadn’t signed up for a spot, but I duly took my place and actually signed a couple of autographs. After that was the traditional milling and swilling and the presentation of pins and certificates to the nominees. Then Grand Master Joe Haldeman and Author Emeritus Neal Barrett Jr. were called up to the podium to receive gifts from the committee. To my surprise, my name was also called. As the presenter of the Keynote Address I received a delightful surfboard-styled cribbage board. Cool.