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Monday, May 11, 2009

My odds are improving


Today I saw my 2nd shuttle lift-off live, on my 4th attempt. It was astonishing.

We started the day at 4am and left the hotel at 5:15am to drive 11 miles to Kennedy Space Center. They opened at 5:30 on this special day - launch day - and we only spent a little while waiting outside in a tired stupor.

We had breakfast with an astronaut at 7:30am (Mark C. Lee, who worked on Hubble once before and was the first man to have an untethered spacewalk - he used a jet pack). We got a photo op with him afterward and then went to see a IMAX movie to kill some time before we had to board the buses to the causeway where we were going to watch the shuttle lift off.

We got a quick lunch in after the movie and then stood in line waiting for the buses to be cleared for departure. Finally, after baking a while, they were. It's about 15 minutes out to the NASA causeway.

The causeway is just a road going over the water, and there's a little dip enough for thousands and thousands of people to sit and watch. It's 6 miles from the launch pad and the closest place non-VIP people can be. There's a relatively unimpeded view of the launch pad - only a small island with some trees slightly obscuring the shuttle. But you can see the orange top of the external tank and some of the rocket boosters in the distance.

We waited about 2 hours in the sun - it was SO hot. But, it was just fun to listen to everyone and watch the crowd. After about an hour I wandered around to stretch the legs and found a much better location that had speakers right next to it. They pipe in the engineering/flight director talk over this and that helps us know what is going on, so we moved to that area.

There was a brief 30 minutes or so of concern as they saw some ice build-up on the connection from the external tank (that holds liquid helium and hydrogen at around -400 degrees) to the orbiter. They decided it wasn't a concern. We also watched some big clouds build up (on the ride home they became thunderstorms, but during countdown it was not an issue). Nevertheless at T-20 minutes, then T-9 minutes, all was go for launch.

The last 9 minutes goes by really rapidly. The entire crowd, which has been chattering for hours suddenly goes silent and the flight director's voice over the loudspeakers is especially clear. You hear the different things happening - retracting the crew arm, starting the auxiliary power units, removing the beany cap. About a minute after the APUs start (T-5 minutes), we could hear a low grumble roll across the causeway - these are the APUs starting up. They are very loud.

Everything takes on this unreal feeling as you go into the last 2 minutes. It's eerily quiet except for the occasional voice over the speakers: "90 seconds".... "60".... "30 seconds, we have auto-sequence start". And then it's just holding your breath.

We could hear the 10 second countdown over the speakers as the igniters beneath the engine engaged, and then the "we have liftoff", and then you could see in the distance the steam rising from the little tiny area where the orange cone is, obscuring it. And then there's a bright fire as the shuttle leaps off the pad. The TV does not do this justice by any means: it is a solar fire, four times the length of the shuttle, and it's like the shuttle climbs this bright flame up.

The crowd cheers wildly: we can see, just over there, Atlantis lifting off, and arcing to the east in a very deliberate climb, long steam trail following the burning fire. It's about 40 seconds after liftoff and a subsonic sounds reaches you from the launch pad and climbs up the trail so recently occupied by fire. You can feel it in your heart, in the ground, in your body. It's a huge rumble that begins to echo across the water and ascends into a great crackling atmospheric vibration that you feel in your whole body.

Without expensive cameras and binoculars, the shuttle is gone in about 3 minutes. You realize the flight controllers are still talking about the status of the engines and trajectory. So there's nothing to do but board the bus and head back to the center. Still, you board the bus changed, and moved, and astonished.

And so we made our way back to Titusville, satisfied and glad for a clean launch... tired, happy, ready to have two days of vacation not shuttle-related. We're a little dazed. It's 1 part tired, 1 part hot, 1 part oh my god.

Be sure to check out my pictures on Facebook. I'll send you a link if you email me or comment. I also have about 3 minutes of video - from T-30 to T+2:30, with the flight controllers talking and the crackling in the sky.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Michael, like I told you I was at the hospital all late morning through 3 and I couldn't find a single soul that knew whether the shuttle had lifted off. I got chills all over when I heard on the radio in the three blocks driving home. A shiver of glee ran through my body--a mother never stops being happy when her kids have something go right. Then I went back and qued up the tape I had been making and saw for myself. You guys are so lucky and I am so envious. Woooooohoooooo!