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Blast off!

It doesn't take money or a friend inside NASA to get a terrific view of a space shuttle launch.

It just takes patience.

A good pair of binoculars helps, too.

Nearby Titusville, however, offers a clear and thoroughly captivating view from a host of free locations. Crowds, though 12 miles away, can see everything from the initial cloud of smoke when the solid rocket boosters light to their separation from the shuttle and external fuel tank.

“There's a lot of sound energy that sweeps over you in the air, even when you're standing 12 miles back,” said Joe Allen, a friend of more than 10 years and a former shuttle astronaut. He should know. Allen is not only a physicist by training but someone who joined the astronaut corps during Apollo and saw four of the bone-rattling launches of the massive Saturn V rocket.

When we watched the shuttle Atlantis launch last summer, we could see the flash and smoke when the boosters lit, but most striking was that it was silent. The sound didn't reach us until after the shuttle began rising above the tower, when we heard – and, then, felt – the rumble. It's a sight and sensation that likely would leave even the most technologically astute awestruck.

To be fair, the absolute best seats require a ticket. The NASA causeway on the Kennedy Space Center grounds, six miles from the launch pad, used to be open to visitors who obtained a free pass. Since 2002 and the creation of security measures after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, launch gawkers have had to pay $15 for a bus ride to the viewing stands, plus regular admission to the visitors complex ($38; $28 for ages 3-11).

On my family's shuttle launch trip, we opted for one of the most popular freebie viewing spots, Space View Park in Titusville. The park includes plenty of shade and handsome historical markers that chart space travel from the earliest rockets to the International Space Station. Plaques honor the early astronauts, and youngsters can compare their handprints to those from some of the most familiar names in the Mercury program.

The true launchophiles show up hours early, set up tarp shelters up front along the Indian River, and then lock and load enormous camera lenses. Allen suggests setting up your camera on a tripod and focusing it ahead of time so you don't have to look through the viewfinder.

“Watch it with your eyes,” he said.

We showed up about three hours ahead of the launch and still got prime space. Keeping 7-year-old and 11-year-old boys occupied during the wait was occasionally challenging, so parents would be well-served with books and games for the kids.

Picnic meals and coolers make the wait all the more comfortable for everyone.

A loudspeaker system throughout the park broadcasts the radio transmissions between launch control and the shuttle, and there's usually a space-travel geek nearby (guilty) who can tell you what things like APU mean (auxiliary power unit) or why launch controllers have to wait for clear weather over Spain (the location of one of the emergency landing strips).

The greatest risk in trying to watch a launch is that there might not be one. Remind yourself going in that there's a good chance the launch will get scrubbed, so add it on as a possible bonus to other excursions in Florida, such as the Kennedy Space Center tours and Walt Disney World.

Hundreds of possible mechanical glitches could, at a minimum, slow things down. The weather must be acceptable, not only locally, but also in one of three overseas landing strips in case the shuttle has to abort and land shortly after takeoff. A couple from Miami who watched near us had made four previous trips that ended in disappointment.

Lastly, be prepared for the post-launch traffic jam. The area of Titusville along the river draws quite a crowd, and the surge of cars chokes every road. Think of the crowd leaving a pro football game and double or triple it.

The gridlock is worth it, and remember that NASA has only a limited number of launches planned.

It doesn't take money or a friend inside NASA to get a terrific view of a space shuttle launch.

It just takes patience.

A good pair of binoculars helps, too.

Nearby Titusville, however, offers a clear and thoroughly captivating view from a host of free locations. Crowds, though 12 miles away, can see everything from the initial cloud of smoke when the solid rocket boosters light to their separation from the shuttle and external fuel tank.

“There's a lot of sound energy that sweeps over you in the air, even when you're standing 12 miles back,” said Joe Allen, a friend of more than 10 years and a former shuttle astronaut. He should know. Allen is not only a physicist by training but someone who joined the astronaut corps during Apollo and saw four of the bone-rattling launches of the massive Saturn V rocket.

When we watched the shuttle Atlantis launch last summer, we could see the flash and smoke when the boosters lit, but most striking was that it was silent. The sound didn't reach us until after the shuttle began rising above the tower, when we heard – and, then, felt – the rumble. It's a sight and sensation that likely would leave even the most technologically astute awestruck.

To be fair, the absolute best seats require a ticket. The NASA causeway on the Kennedy Space Center grounds, six miles from the launch pad, used to be open to visitors who obtained a free pass. Since 2002 and the creation of security measures after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, launch gawkers have had to pay $15 for a bus ride to the viewing stands, plus regular admission to the visitors complex ($38; $28 for ages 3-11).

On my family's shuttle launch trip, we opted for one of the most popular freebie viewing spots, Space View Park in Titusville. The park includes plenty of shade and handsome historical markers that chart space travel from the earliest rockets to the International Space Station. Plaques honor the early astronauts, and youngsters can compare their handprints to those from some of the most familiar names in the Mercury program.

The true launchophiles show up hours early, set up tarp shelters up front along the Indian River, and then lock and load enormous camera lenses. Allen suggests setting up your camera on a tripod and focusing it ahead of time so you don't have to look through the viewfinder.

“Watch it with your eyes,” he said.

We showed up about three hours ahead of the launch and still got prime space. Keeping 7-year-old and 11-year-old boys occupied during the wait was occasionally challenging, so parents would be well-served with books and games for the kids.

Picnic meals and coolers make the wait all the more comfortable for everyone.

A loudspeaker system throughout the park broadcasts the radio transmissions between launch control and the shuttle, and there's usually a space-travel geek nearby (guilty) who can tell you what things like APU mean (auxiliary power unit) or why launch controllers have to wait for clear weather over Spain (the location of one of the emergency landing strips).

The greatest risk in trying to watch a launch is that there might not be one. Remind yourself going in that there's a good chance the launch will get scrubbed, so add it on as a possible bonus to other excursions in Florida, such as the Kennedy Space Center tours and Walt Disney World.

Hundreds of possible mechanical glitches could, at a minimum, slow things down. The weather must be acceptable, not only locally, but also in one of three overseas landing strips in case the shuttle has to abort and land shortly after takeoff. A couple from Miami who watched near us had made four previous trips that ended in disappointment.

Lastly, be prepared for the post-launch traffic jam. The area of Titusville along the river draws quite a crowd, and the surge of cars chokes every road. Think of the crowd leaving a pro football game and double or triple it.

The gridlock is worth it, and remember that NASA has only a limited number of launches planned.

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