This past week I was part of one of the most amazing events that happens on this planet—a space shuttle launch.
I can't even wrap my head around how lucky I am to not only get a chance to see a space shuttle in person, but to watch the very last launch of Discovery and watch it from as close as anyone could ever hope to get at the historic complex 39 press site inside Kennedy Space Center.
Four Months Waiting
I thought I would be writing this four months ago. Discovery was originally scheduled to launch November 1st last year but months of delays resulted from the uncovering of cracks in the structure of the external fuel tank (ET).
Sometime in September I found out I had been picked randomly for the NASATweetup. Myself and 149 others were going to get a chance to watch the last launch of space shuttle Discovery from the press site. If you have ever watched a launch on TV you've seen the press site. It's a scant 3.1 miles from the pad and has the giant countdown clock. Behind the clock are press tents and towers for cameras and reporters.
This is the exact spot where the likes of Walter Cronkite sat and reported the liftoff of Apollo 11. The same clock that counted down to putting people on the moon counted down to the launch of Discovery. I was standing just a few feet away from that very clock.
The press site is also the closest you can get to the launch. It's restricted access, deep inside KSC. No one is closer. Not the astronaut families (out at the banana creek viewing site), not the launch control (behind us next to the VAB), no one. Well, okay, the astronauts themselves. Standing on the edge of turning basin we were essentially the closest human beings to the shuttle as it launched.
Each and every one of us had been chosen against great odds for this moment. And we all pretty much instantly became friends. A thread of common interest, common experience, common emotion connected us all. During the first launch attempt in November there was night after night of waiting for nearly a whole week as the shuttle was scrubbed several times for minor fixes. During that time we had parties together, we rented a house together, we ate, drank, and slept together. We loved every second of it. For many of us this was the first time we were around so many other space geeks. It was a safe place to talk about how excited space ships and science made us. No one wanted to leave.
When the crack in the tank was found we knew our luck had ran out. After a week of simply amazing times together we had to all go home and try again later.
Finally a new launch date was picked at the end of February; four months after we had all first met. In the intervening time we had all grown even closer. Keeping in touch by phone, email, and twitter. We would all be together again. And this time we would see Discovery get off the ground.
Being focused on one event and one group of people for four months is an experience in itself. Getting the chance after all that time time to see the launch as a group, not as strangers, but as family was going to be awesome.
Sound and Light
The launch was indescribable. Just remember that. My feeble attempts to explain what it felt like and sounded like just don't cut it. The best I can do is offer a glimpse into an moment so remarkable I don't even know how compress it into thoughts.
The first thing to understand is it was louder and brighter than you can imagine. The light from the SRB's at liftoff rivals the sun. I was looking through my binoculars just after main engine start watching for the tip of the ET to start moving upward when I was nearly blinded by the exhaust. I blinked and put down my binoculars and watched as what appeared to be the sunset lift off the ground 3 miles away. From an enormous plume of smoke an orange and white spot propelled itself upward on a tower of neon orange heat and light. We could see the shuttle roll around and start to arc out over the Atlantic. Just a few seconds later we started to hear it.
At this point I think I had stopped breathing altogether. We had all been standing there shaking, waiting. Some of us were friends with the astronauts. I had briefly met Al Drew (One of the mission specialists on board) in Houston some months prior. And there they were, sitting on top of this mountain of fuel and flame. It had to go right.
The sound started as a low rumble. Everyone suddenly went quiet in anticipation for the sound of the launch. What started out as a low rumble grew to a castrophany of pounding sound, beating us with waves of compressed air. The rumble was low and strong. You felt it more than heard it. On top of the shaking rumble was a torrent of noise—a bit like standing next to a freight train. On top of that was the crackling. As the engines burn they crackle and pop. This is the part I will remember the most. Amidst all of the shaking and rumbling and noise were little pops, very high pitched and so loud they hurt. Like Chinese firecrackers going off right next to your ears. Only they were so powerful you could feel the shock waves like the air was thick enough to push you over. Growl, rumble, POW, CRACK, BANG, BANG, rumble, POW, BANG. Each pop was so loud and intense I could feel my teeth vibrate. Everything else was drowned out. No one could speak, and even if they did you wouldn't hear them. I was enveloped by the sound, the power of the launch.
As the shuttle made it's way downrange the sound leveled off. Huge cheers erupted from the crowd. Discovery and her brave crew were on their way one last time into space.
Slowly she retreated into the sky. Just a bright dot slowly moving away. I could actually see the SRB's tumble away in my binoculars. The Shuttle kept going as an intense blue dot slowly arcing away faster and faster. Finally she dissapeared behind a large cloud of smoke from the launch.
We all just stood there for a while. Not sure what to do. Tears and hugs. 115 days from when we first met and stood there in dissapointent not sure if we would ever see the launch, or each other, again we were all together in one place triumphant. Everything had worked. We were there. The shuttle program was coming to an end. Just a few minutes earlier our friends were on Earth a couple of miles away, and now there were in space halfway around the planet. Just a few minutes earlier we were together as family waiting, anxious, scared, shaking, hoping for the best, and now, it was the best. It was the best anyone could hope for.