Never give up

Published 10:33 pm Thursday, May 28, 2009

The third try, as they say, was the charm.

Two separate trips to NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility near Chincoteague had ended with no launch, and I was about ready to give up on my dream of seeing a real rocket blast off on an orbital trajectory.

The first late-afternoon trip up north looked bad from the start, and the clouds that were so ominous during our two-and-a-half-hour drive finally made good on their threat of rain, scrubbing the launch early on. When my wife emailed the next morning to see if we were going to try again that day, I realized yet again just how wonderful she is. After all, this was my dream, and she was just going along to humor me — and to drive so that I could continue to work on the drive up.

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That second trip, though, almost crushed my spirit.

Having set up my camera in a great location with an unobstructed view of the launch pad across the marsh, I soon realized that I was sharing my space with millions of biting gnats, mosquitoes and who knows what other pests. I persevered, however, and as the countdown reached the five-minute mark, I felt as tense and jittery as if I’d been strapped in atop the rocket, myself. It carried only satellites, by the way, but you get my drift.

A hold due to technical problems at just over two minutes soon turned into another scrubbed launch, and my hopes of attaining the dream I’d had since watching the Apollo moon launches on television as a boy seemed to evaporate in the night air.

Then, just last week, came a third opportunity. This time I was prepared with two cameras, two tripods and a long lens borrowed from the newspaper. The weather was beautiful, and only technical difficulties would keep NASA from launching this time.

My wife’s work schedule, combined with Hampton Roads’ wonderful traffic and my own nervous bladder meant that we got to Wallops with barely enough time for me to set up my gear. And then it happened. Smoke and fire poured from the bottom of the Minotaur rocket, and it was loosed into the sky, speeding off into space. Less than a minute later, it was out of sight, and I had shot dozens of frames on the two cameras.

Eager to see the results of a total of about 23 hours of traveling and waiting, the next morning I immediately got to work on the photos. But in my zeal, I immediately erased all of them from camera I used for the close-up shots. You may have heard the faint cry despair that issued from my office in that moment.

Three days, several pieces of new software and lots of frustration later, I finally was able to resurrect the “lost” images from my camera card.

My father used to tell me, “Never give up.”

It’s a lesson that NASA has obviously learned well. And I have the photos to prove that it’s one I’ve learned well.