Thursday, May 09, 2013

The Rocketman Triathlon Video: Racing Through the Kennedy Space Center

After the finish.  Bike, t-shirt, finisher's medal and TARDIS towel

This past Sunday, the day after Star Wars Day, I competed in the world's nerdiest triathlon, The Rocketman. Smooth Running teamed up with NASA to set up a race through the Kennedy Space Center. Of the 30 triathlons I've done this was the coolest. As is probably the case for many children of the '80s, my concept of "science and technology" was defined by the shuttle program. Instead of dreaming of being an astronaut, I was always in awe of the scientists that made it possible to launch the astronauts into space. So, when I heard there was a race that not only would bring me up close and personal with shuttle history, but would let me race in a special "rocket scientist" division, I had to sign up. These seemed like my kind of people. The race didn't disappoint. Thinking ahead, I wore a camera on my helmet during the ride through KSC. What follows is the geekiest race report ever with a biker's-eye video of Launch Complex 39.



Before I get to the bike video, I should say that the whole day was full of nerdy awesomeness. They had a giant inflatable astronaut at packet pick-up and our t-shirts were red, white and blue with their rocket logo. While everyone was setting up and getting ready to get in the water the morning of the race, speakers blaired the Star Wars theme, the Star Trek theme and "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (Theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey) as opposed to the standard "We Will Rock You."And of course, before the start they played "Rocket Man." I was glad I brought my TARDIS towel to completely geek out my transition area. I giggled when I realized the turn buoys were shaped like rockets and the old Gemini spacecraft. They stuck with the space motif and made this race totally geektastic. For me this race was all about the theme and the packaging, not the actual race.

Race Start:
The bike section is the only reason I did this course. Months ago the PhysicsCentral team decided I should wear a camera on my helmet and document my trip through Launch Complex 39. At first I was nervous I would get in trouble, but heading out from the start no one said anything. I had looked over the course, knew the names of the things I was going to see, but chose not to look at any pictures of the course. I had never been to Kennedy Space Center and I wanted my first tour to be during this race so it could be as shocking as possible.

Mate-Demate Device: 
The first part of the bike course was on the road next to the runway the shuttles used to land. I thought this would be cool, but there were trees in the way and I couldn't see the runway itself. I started getting nervous that this would actually suck and I was hurting my neck with the camera for nothing. Then we  dipped closer to the runway and I saw a huge scaffolding structure. It didn't know what it was, but I knew it was cool looking. Turns out its what's called the "mate-demate" device (yes, I giggled). If you've ever wondered how they get the shuttles onto the backs of the planes that transport them, this is it. This 100ft structure can lift 120 tons and was mainly used to mate and demate the shuttle as it was carried on the back of a 747 from Edwards Airforce base to KSC. It takes several days to fully couple the shuttle (giggle).

Vehicle Assembly Building: 
After a long and windy section through the (mostly uninteresting) Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge we we started back through the actual Space Center. Before the race I had no idea what the "Vehicle Assembly Building" was, I was just hoping I recognized it when I saw it. No problem there, the thing could fit four Empire State Buildings inside and when it was constructed it was the largest building by volume in the whole world. I turned a corner and there it was. The icon of the shuttle program. With the NASA "meatball" on one side and the American Flag on the other. Watching as it grew closer and closer, I remembered why I wanted to do this race. This building was originally constructed to be large enough to assemble a 36-story Saturn V rocket vertically and later used for the final assembly of the shuttles before they were taken to the launch pads.  When originally painted, the American Flag on the building was the largest in the world with stripes the size of an average traffic lane. To me, this was what I saw on TV as the home of NASA. This was the building where science happened. And wow, seeing it up close, basically biking through the parking lot, was an incredible experience. I did my best to take good video while not hitting the other people on bikes.

Launch Pad A:
This. Was. Awesome. As I rode down the crawlerway I could see it coming up in the distance still fitted with the rigging needed for the shuttle. It was just as I remembered from watching the shuttle launches on TV. As I was riding closer I was getting worried I wouldn't get close enough, that the course just gave us this distant view. How wrong I was. They planned this section of the course beautifully. As we came up with the pad on our left we were diverted through a parking lot behind a small building. My first thought was "Well, this is new for a course" but it was no random choice. As we turned the corner, there it was. Right there.  Right in front of me with a perfect view. If I had kept going straight and strayed off the course I would have gone right up the ramp. My gut reaction was "THIS, THIS RIGHT HERE, IS SCIENCE!"  It was the definition of science since my youth.  This was where Apollo 11 was launched. That is what I saw as science, as the height of science, as why I should study science, as why the would should study science and as what I wanted to do when I grew up. Build amazing things like that. This was the best part of the course. Regaining that feeling of wonder from my youth, reminding me why I do science and why I want other people to do science. Of all of this course and this race what I value the most is regaining my complete wonder at human ingenuity and imagination.  This launch pad allowed us to reach the stars.

Launch Pad B:
I hate to say it, but this didn't do it for me the way Launch Pad A did, but Launch Pad B is the place of the future. The rigging for the shuttle was dismantled to allow for the future of space flight, commercial space trips. If eventually it will be possible to buy tickets to space, you will most likely be blasting off from here. Seeing the three spires and knowing that they were the future was definitely a different feeling from regaining the wonder of my youth. Reading about their future use after I finished really made it worth it though.

Souvenir Snag:
Before I went off to the Space Race my friend told me I should pick up a rock from the crawlerway.  The idea of stopping during a race is sacrilege.  There was no way I was going to do it.  But, well, I couldn't resist. I kept looking at the crawlerway, the path of the shuttle that was made up of special Alabama river rocks that were smooth and would crush just right under the shuttle's weight, and there was no way I was going to pass that up. So I stopped, grabbed some rocks, jammed them in my shorts and went on to the back side of the VAB. As one of my triathlon friends said "Um, STOPPED!!!???  It was RACE, correct!!!???

Launch Control center and Mobil Launcher Platform:
The last amazing thing I saw as I headed out of the complex was the back side of the VAB, home to the Launch Control Center and the Mobil Launcher Platform. The Launch Control Center is exactly what you'd think it is, the place where the Launch Director says "3, 2, 1, Liftoff."  All that stuff that makes launches possible, yeah, its here. Four firing rooms, all the tracking equipment and some pretty awesome rocket scientists.  The building has been used since Apollo 4 and handled the first U.S. manned space flight, Apollo 8. Quite the history and I was within 100 yards of it on a bike! Right past it was the Mobil Launch Platform in a very different form than the shuttle days. Formerly used to drag the shuttle down the crawlerway, it is now being tricked out to handle commercial space flights.

Rail Road/Train:
By far not the coolest thing I saw while on this ride, but certainly worth a mention was the NASA train.   I kept having to cross railroad tracks and was wondering why. They were all over Launch Complex 39. We took a brief detour while passing the VAB and I got a glipmse of the actual NASA train. It was originally used to transport the Solid Rocket Booster and other rocket parts around KSC and to and from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. A video of the train in action can be seen here.

Finish
After 49 miles* and one tour bus I headed back home into strong winds. Usually this is the best part of a bike ride, heading back in for one more sport and a good finish, but for the first time I was sad the bike was almost over. The wind wasn't making it better. But, I figured no matter how bad the rest of the race went, [expletive] that was an amazing bike ride.

Finisher's Medal and Bike






*For you tri geeks out there that may want to know about the actual race part of the race, here ya go.  It was the "half iron" distance which technically means a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike and a half marathon at the end.  The course was mismeasured (leave it to NASA) so I have no idea how far I actually went and my time is immaterial.  I got 34th female overall and second in the "rocket scientist" division.  The woman who beat me got 3rd overall.  The swim was pretty rough water and I swallowed a lot of the river, but felt pretty good, came in 8th woman overall.  The bike, well you know how that was, and the run was not so good.  But, I survived, got a horrible sunburn and had a great time wearing my finisher's shirt.  The race was fairly well organized considering it was the first time it was run and I would definitely do it again.


Thank you to LaserJames for the video edits and Quantum for the great input.

1 comment:

  1. Great video!!! Congrats! I am the one who won the rocket scientist division, but don't feel bad, I started racing triathlons 24 years ago when I worked at KSC. Riding the course for me was like going home!!!!

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