I'm here in Orlando on a work-related trip to a high level client conference. I hadn't even realized there was a night shuttle launch scheduled until someone asked me yesterday during the conference if I wanted to go see it — Cape Canaveral is less than an hour's drive east of Orlando. Since I'd had very little sleep since Sunday morning, this naturally sounded like a grand idea to me.
More to the point, the shuttle program is nearing end of life, I hadn't yet seen a launch live, and it seemed highly unlikely I'd ever get another chance. I knew I'd be done regretting the lost sleep in a day or two, but I'd regret missing the opportunity to view a launch for a long time. (This basic philosophy explains much about my life.)
After a great deal of organizational fubar, much of it during the reception at Seaworld, two of the folks here at the conference wound up setting out with me in a borrowed van. I did not drive.
Kurt Farris, Mark Ryan, your proprietor
We set out for Titusville around 11 pm, aiming to arrive about midnight and find a good spot to await the 2:28 am liftoff. Titusville turned out to be larger than we expected, but definitely a Florida town.
Buddy's shared a strip center with a CitiFinancial mortgage office, a dollar store, a Winn-Dixie, a Sonic, and a dubious roadhouse which I had to vigorously urge my fellow travelers to avoid, in the interests of actually reaching the coast and seeing the launch.
We got down to the shore and parked just across from the boat dock, then walked half a block south to a cleared stretch of shoreline. This map view gives you a better idea how far we were from Launch Complex 39 — about twelve miles, almost all of it open water.
When we arrived about 12:30 am, there were perhaps 500 people in the immediate area. Already there were thousands all up and down the waterfront in Titusville, that was obvious. The view across the bay was excellent, with a low cloud deck of 6,500 feet (ETA: thanks to samildanach for the detail). The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) was quite readily visible, many details distinguishable even in the dark from twelve miles away. Likewise the launch towers, which were lit up like an oil refinery after a cracking tower fire.
That view was ethereal. Spotlights punched up toward the north at a sharp angle to leave a glowing horseshoe-shaped imprint on the cloud deck. That in turn was reflected in the waters of the Indian River. Even if I had possessed no idea of what I was seeing, I would have been impressed. As it was, the view gave me chills. Those are the lights of history, with their roots in the searchlights of Blitz-era London and the machinations of Dr. von Braun, brought to fruition by the vision of a martyred president, then transformed into a tenuous working presence just beyond the edge of our native planet.
I tried a photo, but my little Canon was not up to the task.
The crowd had the festival air of a summer free concert. There was a mix of local folks out to see their rocket fly and people from all over — I spoke to a group of German students and two couples from Massachusetts, while there were automobiles with license plates from as far afield as Ontario and Texas. As launch time approached, our little spot of shoreline grew very crowded. Even so, almost everyone had a good view. There was beer and radio chatter, at one point a whole group of people sang "The Star Spangled Banner". This was America at her dreaming best, kind to visitors and gentle to her own children.
Around 2:00 am, chase planes (and possibly combat air patrol) began to take off from the runway across the water. We heard the bird cannon fire several times, spaced five or ten minutes across. Around 2:25 am the crowd grew very focused. The singing stopped, the drinks were put down. About two minutes later someone with a frequency scanner shouted out "T minus one." People laughed nervously. My skin prickled. The gentleman with the scanner began the countdown out loud at 10. We all shouted along.
When the engines lit, they blossomed into a narrow, steaming sun in eerie silence. Vapor billowed wide in the pattern we all know from a hundred photographs. The cloud deck above bloomed like the eye of God opening in surprise. At our distance, the spacecraft was the barest hyphen atop the fires of infinity. It lifted towards the deck, moving with a slow, deceptive grace, then was swallowed by the sky a few seconds later, leaving behind only a fading ring of light in the clouds.
An egret flew by low on the water in front of us, and someone asked where the rumble was. "Wait for it," people said. We waited, and it came.
You've seen the shuttle launch dozens of times. There's videos and photos of both success and failure. So many of us remember the soul crushing fireworks trail of the Challenger, that epic moment of disaster for my generation. In person, even at the distance where we stood by the water, the noise is a thing in itself. When it arrived, long after the astronauts had vaulted into the waiting heavens, it came like a fist groping in the dark. I felt the launch in my feet, coming up through the ground. I felt it inside my chest as my body echoed like a drum. If I had been any closer, I think it would have driven me to my knees, forced the wax from the my ears and the tears from my eyes. I cannot imagine what being within the shuttle must be like.
The launch noise is the shout of Big Science, our challenge cried to the stars. Watching the shuttle go up was beautiful to the verge of heartbreaking. Hearing it go up was being caught in the echoes of our times.
The two videos I took (with camera and cellphone in each hand), though they did not catch the noise, which seemed to echo mostly in my heart:
As usual, more at the Flickr set