What it’s like to see a shuttle launch
The first four days of our Florida trip, told in three sentences:
- Myself, my dad, and my stepmom road-tripped to Florida this past week while my wife and sister flew.
- Overnight Saturday, we went to the Kennedy Space Center and waited for six hours in the cold, only for the shuttle launch to be cancelled at the last minute due to persistent low cloud cover.
- At 9:00 on Sunday night, just as the Saints were defeating the Colts down in Miami, we drove back to the Space Center, nervously checking the weather forecasts, and worried that we’d miss seeing a launch entirely.
The first four hours of Monday morning, told somewhat longer:
The five of us have spent a decent amount of time discussing how we can best describe the shuttle launch that we saw, cold and tired, at 4:14 this Monday morning. We’ve reached the general conclusion that we can’t, and that that’s part of what makes it so special. Knowing it’s probably the final nighttime shuttle launch, the last one ever, makes it more special still.
On the advice of many shuttle-watching veterans, we didn’t even film the launch as it happened. Sorry.
We did this for two reasons: first, because we were told not to let a camera lens get between us and our viewing of it. (NASA administrator John Bolden, in a press conference, even urged rookie press photographers to put their cameras down for the launch.) Second, though: there is no way, no way, that any of the YouTube videos and beautiful pictures you just Googled can convey what it looks like in person. Those are beautiful to look at, don’t get me wrong. But they’re not what we saw.
Backing up a bit: for three hours, after being dropped off by the KSC shuttle bus at 1 AM, we sat in a folding-chair circle, each wrapped like a burrito in blankets and shivering miserably. Hot chocolate was 2 dollars; I would have paid 10. Overhead, the same sorts of clouds that had scrubbed the previous night’s flight hung ominously. Inside my little blanket-teepee, I checked and re-checked the Spaceflight Now Twitter feed, which inspired little confidence but maintained a 60% chance of a successful launch. The shuttle sat on its pad six miles to the north, strikingly illuminated, almost worth the trip out just to see like this.
By 3:45 AM, a half-hour before launch time, our nerves were frayed. The stars frustratingly came and went overhead. Our body temperature sank like an alligator’s. And of all things, we learned that NASA was optimistic about the weather in Florida, but concerned about the weather in Spain. I figured the launch had a 50/50 chance of proceeding, and I was seriously doubting whether we’d be up to try the overnight campout routine for a third consecutive day. The announcer on NASA’s radio station kept repeating, almost verbatim, a line that we began to loathe: “We are not working on any technical issues that would preclude launch… the weather remains the only concern.”
Then at 3:55, nineteen minutes before the launch window opened, the radio announcer welcomed the assistant flight director for a quick interview. He got to brass tacks and asked how things were looking. The director mentioned the weather issues, but said that conditions were currently “green,” and announced that the shuttle was tentatively ready to fly. Shortly after, on the live radio feed, we heard one NASA bigwig instruct another: “You are cleared to launch Endeavour.”
Each of the 10,000 people lining the causeway stood and cheered. Amateur photographers with giant football-game camera lenses and tripods began getting ready.
Just after 4:00 AM, over the radio we heard the familiar pre-flight check from launch control: “Capcom?” “Go.” “SRO?” “Go.” I’ve seen it on TV a thousand times, but it gave me chills to hear live in person. Finally, the flight director announced they were “go for launch.” We cheered again, and stood up, suddenly ignoring the frigid temperature.
The final few minutes flew by. “Thirty seconds,” said the announcer. “Fifteen seconds.” Half the crowd counted down the last ten seconds like it was New Year’s Eve. I tried not to blink. If you’d asked me in that moment what I was so damn excited about, I couldn’t have even told you.
T-minus 8 seconds: a shower of sparks began to fly directly under the shuttle engines. From our distance, it just looked like two little flames, like someone had lit the pilot light. (In fact, that’s exactly what those sparks are.)
T-minus 6.6 seconds: the shuttle engines lit. They’re not the brightest part of the whole operation, but a cloud of smoke began to obscure the shuttle from our vantage point.
T-minus zero: the SRBs ignited.
At first, nothing seemed to happen. For half a second, the crowd quieted. I’d spent a lot of time mentally preparing for something to go wrong, and so I thought something had.
Then suddenly, from out of the cloud around the launch pad, the sun rose.
And I mean that almost literally. The entire sky lit up clear as day; the scattered clouds above the shuttle positively glowed. The shuttle rose on an incandescent orange lightsaber-column that left a bright spot on our retinas. From our distance we couldn’t see any definition in the rocket fire, just a solid line that looked like a time-lapse image of the sunrise. I experienced that strange, rare sensation you have when you realize something really is all that it’s hyped up to be. I blinked back tears.
After eight seconds, the shuttle column rotated 180 degrees, and I could very slightly see it silhouetted beside the fuel tank as it headed into the sky. Here’s where I noticed maybe the biggest aspect that videos and photographs fail to convey: the acceleration. On TV, thanks to the miracle of the zoom lens, the shuttle looks like it’s headed up at a more-or-less continuous rate. Nope. Within 10 seconds it was moving at 100 miles per hour. Within 20 it was at almost a thousand miles per hour. It’s one thing to marvel that they manage to get this entire gigantic assembly off the ground at all. It’s something else entirely to marvel that they get it going faster than a speeding bullet—almost ten times faster—in eight minutes flat. And to witness it happening.
I had totally forgotten about the sound. Besides the cacaphony of 10,000 people cheering and saying “Wow” all at once, the entire launch had been perfectly silent thus far. At 30 seconds, by the time the shuttle was a mile in the sky, the noise of the three shuttle engines reached us, and we ooh’d and aah’d all over again. Then, at 36.6 seconds, the sound of the SRBs arrived like a loud, continuous roll of thunder. Everyone clapped.
It kept accelerating, making a steady parabolic arc. The column of smoke drifted in a lazy coil, reflecting the light from the shuttle above it. The spotlights on the freshly-evacuated launch pad shone through the cloud, creating an unexpectedly beautiful sight.
Within 90 seconds, the sky was dark again, and the whole massive rocketship had been reduced to a bright, twinkling star far in the distance, headed away from us over the Atlantic. We didn’t really see the SRBs separate, which they did around the two-minute mark, parachuting back into the ocean. I watched for the shuttle as long as I could, as it became hazy on the horizon, reduced to the brightness of just another star among thousands. After about six minutes, not long before the crew was to reach orbit and shut off the engines entirely, the star disappeared over the horizon. Most of the tourists by this point had already begun packing their stuff up and heading off the causeway.
Back on the bus, our batch of tourists gabbed excitedly to each other, some in a technical manner, others just saying “It was SO PRETTY!” over and over. Two rows in front of me, one fellow examined the time-lapse picture he’d just made on his DSLR, showing the shape of the shuttle headed up and out of Braward County.
It was 4:24 AM, only ten minutes after the launch began.
Riding back to the KSC, and then driving the surprisingly quick drive back to the hotel, we talked about our favorite parts of the launch. And, again, we mulled the problem of how to possibly describe the sight we’d seen. Somewhere along the way, though, I think my sister hit on it:
“We waited sixteen hours in the cold over two nights just to see a 30-second rocket launch, and it was totally, completely worth it.”
(Fun fact: once the solid rocket boosters are ignited, it is *literally impossible* to turn them off.)
 If the shuttle has to abort the launch halfway into space, it detaches the fuel tank and then completes a ballistic trajectory to land in one of two sites in Spain or one in France. One of the three has to have acceptable weather for the launch to proceed; none did. “If this scrubs the launch,” I grumbled, “I am never speaking Spanish again.”
 And Margaret had to fly back to New York on Monday morning, so this was her last chance entirely. Furthermore: the replacement tickets were $21 per person, after we’d already paid $56 per person initially. Furthermore: the weather forecast was actually worse on the following night.
 Yes, 6.6 seconds. A few days at the KSC makes you very knowledgeable about the minutiae of shuttle-launching.
 I think we were in the latter group.