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“Discovery” finally lifts off, launches new Puerto Rican hero

Hazel Heyer  Mar 16, 2009

Kennedy Space Center, Florida (eTN) - At 7:43 pm (ET), STS-119 (Space Transportation System flight 119) Discovery took off, manned by seven astronauts on a mission to install the new solar wings, as well as drop off a new urine processor for the space station's water-recycling system, and a new station resident, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata. Although Sunday night’s launch of Discovery followed five delays that caused the mission to be shortened by a day and a spacewalk to be cut over concerns including hydrogen valves and a hydrogen leak pushed back the flight by more than a month, the launch went on with thousands of spectators from all over the world cheering on.

From the best vantage point, the NASA causeway, which is the closest public viewing site approximately six miles from shuttle launch pads located directly on the banks of the Banana River, ticketed viewing was allowed. On this strip, hundreds of people from VIP NASA family and guests and regular visitors thronged and waited for over four hours until countdown and lift-off.

On board Discovery Monday afternoon, the seven astronauts conducted an in-depth inspection of their ship's wings and nose with a laser-tipped boom. This was just standard procedure the day after launch to check for any damage that may have occurred during lift-off.

The other story, however, is back on earth - on ground. The people who traveled to Cape Canaveral, unmindful for one second of recession woes troubling America and the credit crunch-real estate crisis combo in Florida - which offered a good angle.

Though traffic had built up on the beeline, SR 328 and Interstate 95, or SR 3 from Merritt Island or Cocoa Beach, people exhausted from driving and/or flying went to see Discovery. The show, the launch that had been put off several times, finally has gone on. It was time for a celebration amid a recession that proved that it couldn’t stop people from traveling to Cape Canaveral.

Alongside groups from Japan, about 200 Puerto Ricans flew into Florida hailing their very own astronaut Joseph Acaba.

My luck -- meeting Acaba’s family 9 minutes before take-off. Blanca Lopez, aunt of Acaba who flew in from Riverside, CA, sat beside me. According to her, Joe was selected from a register of teachers in space. “Joe, raised in Anaheim, is a science teacher with master’s [degree] in geology. He went through highly selective program and we’re all here supporting the first Puerto Rican astronaut to go into space.” Lopez said she would have traveled even farther to boost his nephew’s already-high spirits, on behalf of Puerto Rico and the US Senate which recently gave Acaba top recognitions.

Joe’s cousin, Marco Acaba from Puerto Rico, said a group of close friends and family members flew in many times, prior to this final launch date. He said that as the original mission Feb. 12 was scrapped, followed by March 11 and Sunday’s final March 15 launch, he kept coming back to Florida from Puerto Rico. “Direct flights from my hometown are about $119 average per flight each way, times 4 (which he paid for all trips). I don’t mind doing it for Joe,” he said, adding, “I would like to see the space program continue despite our weakened economy. It is science and we need to understand space and oceans, the world around us/outside us, and the promotion of humanity. It is important,” Acaba said. He also said that while his cousin, Joe, is on the last shuttle mission as NASA scraps the mission, he will still work for NASA holding his federal job regardless. Hence in times like this, the space industry needs its workforce to keep moving an economy vital to millions hired by it including NASA, Kennedy Space Center complex, tourism and other related businesses.

Another cousin of Acaba flew in from CA. Edward Velasquez from Los Angeles said he may have spent close to $400 and with rescheduled $300 fees incur total expenses of over $1000 including flights, car rentals twice in a row. “Yes, all in the name of the island of Puerto Rico, the country and my cousin,” he said adding that he also wishes the space program to survive in the face of a recessionary environment. “A lot have come out from NASA’s program. Space travel should not end; it’s important for the US to continue with the programs. We’ve been able to benefit on our highways, technology and tourism with the space missions. And if the Space Center were to be shut down, there will be a lot of people who will be unemployed, perhaps to the tune of around 30,000. It will be sad to see it go,” said Velasquez about his hopes for another giant leap for mankind by hurdling recession and keeping space adventures alive.

“This is more than a family thing where we also get to see the Shuttle go up,” said another cousin Armand Acaba from Puerto Rico. Acaba said his cousin and other shuttle mates are going to operate the arm. And indeed, the astronauts were off to a quick start. NASA kept close tabs on an old piece of space junk Monday afternoon. The Soviet satellite debris threatened to come too close (about half a mile) to the international space station as the shuttle raced toward the orbiting outpost.

Florida-based space industry may have seen the last shuttle take off but it has proven that the space programs at Cape Canaveral will continue to draw crowds. The Kennedy Space Center complex reports that every year, more than 1.5 million guests from around the world experience their own space adventure without the famed astronauts turbo-boosted off ground. The 70-acre Visitor Complex offers exciting past, present and future space program experiences from the new Shuttle Launch Experience, astronaut encounters to larger-than-life IMAX films, live shows, hands-on activities, youth educational programs and behind-the-scene tours of the Space Center complex. Meetings and events planners can even book banquets at the 100,000 sq. foot Dr. Kurt H. Debus Conference center with the giant 363-ft, 6.2 million Saturn V moon rocket in the middle of the ballroom.

“Discovery” finally lifts off, launches new Puerto Rican hero
Joe Acaba (Image via

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