When I was planning my trip, I wasn't actually planning on seeing the Shuttle launch. I just figured that while I was driving to Florida seeing things that should be seen, it made sense to plan on seeing the Kennedy Space Center, and Tuesday, July 26 was the day that fit into my schedule to do it. By the time NASA seemed pretty definite that they were actually launching on the day that I was going to be there, it was only T minus a couple of days and I was already on the road. On the one hand, it was cool that I would get to see the Shuttle go up; on the other hand, it was going to mean that I would have to deal with a big crowd, and I wouldn't actually see the Space Center. At least, the literature says that it's not open to tours on Shuttle launch days, and I assume everyone is too busy doing real work on that day to deal with herding tourists.
On about the 24th, it penetrated my feeble brain that I was probably not going to be able to stay in Titusville the night before the launch. I did call a reasonable-looking motel there, and they told me that (a) yes, they were full, and (b) even if a room opened up, their rates were doubled for the occasion. I didn't feel like spending a lot of time and cell phone minutes trying to figure out just how close I could get and still get a cheap room. I called a place in Daytona Beach, a bit over an hour up the coast, and they had room.
Tuesday morning, it took me almost an hour longer to actually get on the road than I'd planned. By the time I actually got to Titusville, it was getting pretty close to launch time, and I discovered that there wasn't much organized preparation for the crowd. On the plus side, this meant that nobody herded me into a parking lot two miles away from where I could see anything and charged me a bunch of money for the privilege. On the minus side, I drove around for 15 minutes clueless before I found a reasonable place where it appeared to be OK to park. I felt like I was parked in a good place when I saw that a light pole near my car had an osprey perched on it.
After photographing the osprey, I wandered over to the waterfront and tried to find a spot. By this time it was T minus about 10 minutes and I was getting a bit nervous, but I found a place where I could stand and see what I thought was the launch complex. It was pretty hazy, and even through my 500mm lens I couldn't see too clearly. It was only when I saw the fire of the launch dimly through the tree that I hadn't been looking at the right launch pad, and the reason that the space I'd found didn't already have people in it was that it couldn't actually see pad 39B.
I couldn't get the camera to focus on the launch fire through the tree. (Sometimes the autofocus on my camera is very frustrating; most of the time it works so well that I come to depend on the camera to be able to focus intelligently when I point it at something, and when it doesn't I'm not quick enough to go to manual, so I miss rapidly unfolding events.) By the time I got the camera in focus, the most spectacular part was over. Here's the first shot I got of the Shuttle.
8 seconds after that first shot, here's a cropped shot of the big Roman candle.
Here's a shot about a minute after launch. The angle is as close to reality as I can manage; by this time the ship is above the thick gooey atmosphere and has turned downrange.
A 500 mm lens isn't a good enough telescope to get a good view of the solid rocket boosters coming free, but it's just enough to be able to see it.
Here's a shot of the smoke plume about 3 minutes after launch. I was playing with Photoshop and came up with this, which I think is quite lovely.
After the launch was over, I had a good long wait before it was worth even trying to get in my car and drive anywhere. About 25 minutes after launch, the wind had done interesting things with the smoke plume, so I took this shot of it.