So it was dark around 4 am or so as we all crowded around the tower. We we all pulling an overnighter… the NASA workers, the media, everyone. The Shuttle would land at 6 am, and when you want to be ready 6 hours early, that is a pretty clear overnighter. I had just flown from South Carolina down to Florida through the early evening, and was spending the night running about Florida from the airport to the NASA facilities to watch the shuttle come down at the first break of dawn’s light. I would then fly back to South Carolina right after the landing, so sleep, for me and everyone else here, was simply not in the cards. So, somewhat like excited zombies, we all milled about the tower at the shuttle landing facility in the darkness, waiting for the sonic boom that would herald the orbiter’s arrival overhead.
Some monitors were set up showing computer graphics of the orbiter, showing it’s current pitch, roll, heading, and location over a global map. Though the space ship was on the other side of the earth, visible to no-one, it’s telemetry was constantly being sent down, allowing this animation to show all of us what it was doing, half a world away. We had a steady stream of announcements on when they had shut off the heat radiators, closed the cargo bay doors, gotten the final re-entry profile, started up the aux power units, did their de-orbit burn, etc. While all of this was going on, we saw the time left to arrival at our feet to within a second. Again: The Orbiter was half a world away, would still circle the Earth several times before slowing down to land, and they were still showing us the arrival time to the second. What was so strange is the amazing and complete inevitability of it all. Once they did that de orbit burn, there was NO avoiding the plummet from space, scorching trial by fire, and arrival right in front of us at a time known to the second… even though the process was started over Australia… with a 45 minute trip to Florida
As a really special bonus, the ISS was scheduled to rise and run across the sky just five minutes or so before the shuttle landed!! On schedule, of course, a bright light rose up and moved really quite rapidly across re sky… really very bright and easily visible. It was SO visible, in fact, that I am rather amazed, as I write this, that we don’t see it every day! It was easy to see how it all fit together, at that moment. The shuttle was returning from a mission to resupply the ISS, so it was no surprise to see them both from the same location and time… They were sharing the same orbit! So they passed over the same parts of the Earth at about the same times.
Just as the ISS dropped out of sight over the horizon, the very first pink glow of sunrise on the horizon, there was tremendous and hair-raising double-explosion. This was a sharp, hair-raising double hit cracking sound. If you were try to duplicate this sound in your house with a high-end stereo, it would blow the speakers. You could feel the hair on your head and the clothes on your body pulse and shift a bit from being hit by the double-tap pressure waves. You could feel your hair and clothes move under the pressure wave. I must admit, I actually thought that it was an explosion unrelated to the shuttle, like something really big blowing up nearby. When the cheering started in response to this double-hit, though, I knew that it was the double-pulse sonic boom associated with all Shuttle entries. I really don’t see how the ship can stand such a noise without being destroyed. All eyes searched the sky for the incoming orbiter, but we could see nothing in the nearly-black sky with only the faintest hint of sunrise.
Nobody could see the 250,000 pound behemoth screaming overhead at 1,000 mph, though, in the blackness… We had only the huge double-thunderclap report to prove that everything we had been hearing over the TV feed was really happening, and aimed right at us. All was completely invisible, though. We had been watching the TV feed showing what NASA TOLD us the Orbiter was doing, far in space and running all about the planet, for the last 8 hours or so, watching a timer counting down to zero by the runway, putting completely blind faith in all the planning that said that at EXACTLY 5:56 am, the Orbiter would somehow arrive HERE.
So we all stared at the huge cathedral of spotlights at the far and if the runway, sending a white glow for About 5 miles or so along the length of the runway. As we all stared at the hazy spotlight glow, waiting to see the Shuttle illuminated, suddenly the lights began to flicker and shift as if a huge object were moving at pretty high speed right in front of the lights, blocking their beams! It was like a pulsing, or shifting, of the lights as some shape descended through their path, the shifting lights and casting shadows clear across the sky!!!
In the history of shadow puppets, this had to be some sort of world record, a thousand times over.
A moment later there was the most beautiful screaming, whooshing noise I have ever heard… Like a jet with huge high-bypass engines at low throttle even though the jumbo jet is coasting At 250 mph or so. The noise of the air rushing around the ship was as loud as an airliner with high-bypass engines.
But we still had not SEEN the ship!!! It was now just behind the trees. Suddenly the mammoth ship burst out from behind the trees and rushed past us at maybe 150 mph or so, majestically slowing smoothly under the drag of it’s huge parachute. The Orbiter Atlantis was lit by the pale ghostly white glow of the runway lights, and the pale pink light of sunrise, giving it a pink glow that exposed every single tile as it coasted by at a bit over 100 mph or so, the emitting a mellow smooth whistling scream. Every tine I go to see a shuttle launch or return, I always promise myself in advance that I will be quiet so I can hear ever nuance, and hope the crowd will be silent as well. Every time, my plan falls apart as me and everyone around is helpless to avoid simultaneous gasping, then screaming, then cheering as the Orbiter schools us in just how big, fast, and majestic something can be. And every time, the Shuttle is so loud that even though you and everyone around you is screaming, you hear it anyway.
With my first launch, viewed from far, far away, there was a gasp and cry of ‘mon dios’ from a woman behind me as smoke, light, and then flame erupted from the tiny launch pad far in the distance, like watching a volcano suddenly erupting… Then cheering as that eruption turned
into a pillar of fire arcing skyward… A pillar of fire with people in it.
With my second launch, right beside the pad, it was when the orbiter was only a few thousand yards above us, disappeared into the cloud deck, and then suddenly appeared again through a hole in the clouds, framed in all it’s detail sitting on twin pillars of flame and a trio of shock diamonds between two cloud layers that everyone had to gasp at the stark beauty and shocking power of it all, perfectly framed for a moment like you were looking at it through a telescope.
My third trip was the re-entry, and here was the hair-raising sonic boom to cap off the last hour of commentary and computer displays of the re-entry, and the the spotlights flickering and pulsing in 5-mile long streaks followed by the orbiter racing out from behind the trees, screaming like a jet, but still slowing it’s huge weight down.
Every lift off or re-entry has had some moment where we are absolutely powerless to resist the urge to scream.
Of course, this chapter of our Country is now over… The shuttle, and manned space flight, cancelled because it is “too expensive”… while NASA recieves less than 1% of the bloated governments funding. Free health care for the disgustingly self-destructive and obese, at taxpayer expense, is the new civil right, and clearly the better way to spend the resources that taxpayers have worked for. When you elect someone as liberal as him, you owe people as pathetic as her… all they can eat. And do you find it interesting that we have to go to the news services OF ANOTHER COUNTRY to find out what is happening HERE?