Google Lunar X PRIZE: Where dreams really do come true...

[Ed. note: a guest post from the awesome ISU team from the 2008 Google Lunar X PRIZE Student Competition]


ISU+GLXP+team.jpgThis story begins once upon a time (May 2008) in a land far, far away (Strasbourg, France), as the Google Lunar X PRIZE hosted its very first Team Summit at the International Space University (ISU). It was here that the Google Lunar X PRIZE was first won by two teams of students over the course of eight hours... on paper, anyway.

During the Team Summit, which included members from registered Google Lunar X PRIZE teams around the world, the X PRIZE Foundation hosted a student competition comprised of teams from ISU, Supaero (France), University of Stuttgart (Germany), Embry Riddle (USA), UPC (Spain), and Italy. The goal of the student competition was simple: present the best concept for winning the Google Lunar X PRIZE, while setting the stage for future commercial lunar activities. The presentations were judged by a panel of space experts from government, industry, and academia. If you want to see what was presented by any or all of these student teams, you can still find the final presentations on the Google Lunar X PRIZE website. At the end of the day, there was a tie between Team ISU and the University of Stuttgart Team, and the Supaero Team received special mention. Besides winning highly coveted Google Lunar X PRIZE t-shirts, Dr. Pete Worden-Center Director of NASA Ames and one of the student competition judges-spontaneously offered VIP passes to a Space Shuttle launch, provided we could make our own travel arrangements to Cape Canaveral. Um, no problem, Dr. Worden, sir, whatever it takes to have the opportunity to see one of the remaining Shuttle launches from a mere three miles away. No-siree. Thus began our quest to see the STS-126 launch on November 14, 2008...

The STS-126 Mission

One by one, our team of six (sans Scott, who was living in Shanghai at this point) arrived in Florida to cheer on a team of seven: the crew of STS-126. The mission was the 27th flight of Endeavour to the International Space Station (ISS) and was set to deliver over seven metric tons of equipment and supplies to the ISS (essential to maintaining a six-person crew on-board in the near future). The 15-day flight also included a series of EVAs and robotic operations, and delivered a new space station crew member (Magnus) while returning another (Chamitoff).

Welcome to the Space Coast

From the moment we first touched down in Orlando, we were swept up in the festival that surrounds every Shuttle launch. Even Mickey Mouse plays second string in Florida when NASA has a prepped orbiter on the launch pad. Out on the coastline of Cocoa Beach, prime contractors hosted overlapping galas in nearly every rentable space. There was a wonderful feeling of community and a shared sense of excitement, with the events taking place under a clear night sky illuminated by a sweet full Moon. Even the Moon itself seemed to be just a little closer now that we were only a few miles from the Apollo-era launch pad.

As we anticipated the next day's launch, it seemed only fitting that we do so in the midst of an international community gathered to share an excitement for space exploration that can't be controlled by borders or regulations. Our first night in town was spent meeting new friends from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada, and the United States. It was a truly powerful and moving experience to gather as a single international community to witness firsthand the results of what peaceful endeavours can achieve.

The Countdown

On November 14, the day the first launch window for the mission opened, we arrived early to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) to pick up our visitor passes and take a leisurely tour of the public exhibitions on-site. Our first stop, the "Rocket Garden", was an impressive monument to the history of human spaceflight, including larger-than-life specimens of the Redstone, Atlas, and Titan rockets that powered the early stages of America's entry into space. We were also not disappointed by the IMAX film "Space Station", the first IMAX movie to capture 3D footage in space, which featured several minutes of a favorite cosmonaut of the female members of the group -- Sergei Krikalev. Our team had a chance to meet Krikalev earlier in the year when he visited ISU. We also visited the Space Mirror Memorial, a national memorial to the US astronauts who gave their lives in pursuit of the exploration of space, which served as a sobering reminder of the dangers of spaceflight and of the courage of those who were willing to accept these risks in the pursuit of a better future for humanity.


As dusk approached, we joined the lineup for the buses that took us to our designated VIP viewing site, Banana Creek. The site sits roughly three miles from the launch pad and provides an amazing vantage point from which to view the launch -- and not to mention a full-scale Saturn V launch vehicle suspended in the adjacent Saturn V Center. After drooling over this giant marvel of engineering, we made our way to front row seats at the edge of water, literally as close as we could possibly get to the glittering lights of launch pad 39B. As the moon rose into the sky, so did the Space Shuttle Endeavour, precisely at 7:55 PM EST. The launch completely illuminated the sky, and all we could hear was the powerful roar of the engines and riotous cheering of the crowd. It was surreal to witness something that every member of our team has read about, seen on TV, and dreamt of since childhood, and it is interesting to note that the Shuttles have been flying since before many of our team members were born.



Final Remarks

Despite our long-lived dreams of witnessing a Shuttle launch in person, none of us had the opportunity to see one prior to STS-126. Through the Google Lunar X PRIZE student competition, we all felt very fortunate to have been presented with this opportunity -- complete with an amazing vantage point and the company of great friends. The entire experience can truly be described as "once in a lifetime", particularly since this was the last planned night launch before the Space Shuttle is scheduled to be retired next year. The entire launch and events leading up to it will be something that none of us will ever forget-so thank you to Pierre, Will, Dr. Worden, and the rest of the supporting cast of Google Lunar X PRIZE for giving a group of young space enthusiasts a chance to witness it firsthand.

Collaboratively written by: James Antifaev, Dexter Jagula, James MacLeod, Gina Pieri, and Amanda Stiles

William said...

This is the part where I pretend I'm not extremely jealous of all of you, especially those who saw the Shuttle launch on your first try. I think I'm 0 for 4, plus 0 for 1 on landings! Someday....

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