July 26, 2011
It is so loud you can barely hear the screaming.
It is so bright, you can barely look at it.
But, I am getting ahead of myself.
It started with a tip from friend that the way to see the Shuttle launches up close was to get a MEDIA PASS.
As much as I despise the biased (usually liberal) media, I just HAD to get close to this thing to watch it fly, so it was time to make a deal with the devil! A few phone calls and emails with editors of a local paper (OK, maybe the Columbia Star is NOT liberally-biased, but anyhoo), and I was brought on as a free-lancer that would contribute one article! This was just enough to make me a member of the media, which was just enough to get me a press-pass to get up close to the final Space Shuttle launch. Living in Columba, South Carolina, it is an 8-hour drive, 2-hour flight in 428X, or 10-hour long airline Ordeal of Hell going through Cleveland and Chicago. (OK, the connections weren’t really thru Cleveland and Chicago, but all the flights WERE 2-connection, and ran 10 hours from first take-off to final landing… 2 hours LONGER than DRIVING!!!)
So I had 428X filled to the tabs and it was off to the airport! I would much rather rather risk a horrible death than go through the all-consuming politically-correct paranoia that is our airline system. My flight time would be only 2 hours each way (!!!) and I would use my XM Weather to display the national weather radar image in the cockpit to hop around the thunderstorms like a cross-country game of slow-motion hop-skotch! (Each square on the game-grid, containing a thunderstorm cell, or not, was maybe 50 miles on a side).
So, with enough fuel to take me to Florida and all the way back to Columbia if I got scared or had to come back, I was out of Columbia and on my way!
Navigating huge systems of thunderstorms in a plane like 428X is pretty easily successful, but a bit slow, and mentally exhausting. Here is how you do it: On the large secondary screen in the cockpit, you have a map of the entire United States, zoomable right down to the taxiway you are on. The National Weather Service collects an image of every drop of rain (!!!) and every lightning strike (!!!) in the entire country, and then uploads that data to satellites overhead every 5 minutes or so. For a modest fee, XM-radio than sends that data right back down to 428X along with my techno. The end result is absolutely STUNNING! In flight, you can zoom out and see the thunderstorm and lightning (very very frightening!) map for the entire country. Every thunderstorm cell, every lightning strike, and even every cloud top is clearly plotted. I start by zooming out to see the whole country, and can then zoom in to see the area right around my plane, or right ahead, or over a possible destination airport. (POSSIBLE destination airport? Right! With all the possibilities for engine trouble, fuel exhaustion, weather closing in, etc, there are always several possible destination airports in mind). Now, let’s try some thought experiments here. Imagine you are flying along and it is clear ahead, but there is major thunderstorm activity to the left and right? Your instinct might be to forge straight ahead… BUT WHAT IF THT ALLEY DEAD-ENDS INTO ANOTHER THUNDERSTORM? You may want to turn around at that point, but what if the alley has, by then, closed behind you? Thinking like this, you see that you need to plan WELL ahead, zooming the map way out to see all the possibilities that could await down the road. Since the thunderstorms and fronts, especially in the SouthEast summertimes, form huge, complex, wildly-varied systems that cover half the country, planning your route through or around them to arrive at a given location with minimal risk of touching the yellow and red-colored precip on the map can be sort of complex.
So, you think you have it worked out now?
Not quite! Because I forgot to tell you that all the thunderstorms MOVE! Your airplane might be going 200 knots, but the thunderstorms are still moving along at 40 knots. So, you can sure OUTRUN them in a RACE, but if you are planning on avoiding a cell 100 miles away, and it takes you 30 minutes to get there, the cell could have moved 20 miles by the time you get there! If you planned to MISS the cell by 10 miles, then this could be… ummm.. problematic.
Imagine you are single white knight on a chessboard, able to leap and turn gracefully (only 1 move per turn, though!) and each square on the chessboard is 50 miles across or so, and the chessboard has thousands of squares. Now imagine that there are a huge number of black pieces on the board. They are all bishops, sliding along at diagonals, and the other player moves ALL OF HIS PIECES CONTINUOUSLY. You only get to move your ONE knight, but the other side is moving ALL of his dozens of bishops continuously. Slowly. But continuously. ALL of them.
So, the game is a bit mentally tiring. Every plan is made 5 minutes to an hour in advance, as you plot your possible paths far ahead, hoping that the constant motion of the thunderstorms won’t render your plans useless by the time you get to the next planned square on the board.
There is a reward for this stressful, slow-motion game: The view out the window is amazing. The clouds forget all notion of being ‘above’ you, and instead fill the sky in every direction. The view is really something, and cannot be captured with any camera that I have ever seen.
OK enough about thunderstorm-navigation! I finally got to Titusville and put down after only 2 hours enroute. Not bad! One FBO had a rental car. The other a hangar. Neither had both! Oh well! A bit of driving and radioing about solved all problems, and soon with 842X safely nestled away in a nest, I was off to NASA to get my press credentials! The lady at the FBO left me with one piece of information about which she was rather certain: The Shuttle would NOT fly the next morning. The weather was terrible, and the chance of launch was 30%. And when they SAY 30%, you can really count on it NOT happening. Oh well! Even though the Shuttle would NOT actually fly the next morning thanks to the weather, I STILL wanted to go through the motions of being at the launch site, so I would know where everything was for the NEXT day.
The Kia had about as much acceleration as… umm… something slow, and the wheels started to shake about 65 mph. I wasn’t here for the driving, though, and with a little GPS help I found my way to the NASA press-pass building. This is a simple little building, clearly left over from the 60’s, where a few folks verify your credentials and give you your press-pass that you can flash and wave about to get really close to the Shuttle when it flies. (Ohmygod. I just realized, that since I often blog about stuff, I actually really AM part of the media, sort of! Aeei!!) Anyhoo, with my coveted badge in hand, it was off to the rather wretched, barely-functioning Ramada Inn (with a DENNY’s built into the side of it! Yaaay!) for a good night’s sleep, for the next day would start at 6 am!
The weather at 6 am was exactly as they had been forecasting: Cloudy. Rainy. Drizzly. Chance of launch: 30%.
OK so we would not fly today. I still might as well head on out there, though, so I would know where everything was for the NEXT day. Two hours of traffic later and I had travelled the 11 miles from the hotel to the Press Viewing Area at Kennedy Space Center. (Read that again. Time from Columbia, South Carolina, to Titusville, Florida: 2 hours. Time to travel 11 miles from hotel to viewing area: 2 hours. DRIVING: WE’RE DOING IT WRONG).
Nevertheless, once I got to the press area, the amazing fun started. So here is what it’s like: When you show up there are dozens of trucks everywhere with sat dishes on top broadcasting back home, and thousands of media people milling all about, interviewing the astronauts that roamed the fields, giving impromptu interviews to all who simply cared to ask! (Including me! What did I learn? That the APU on the Space Shuttle is powered by HYDRAZINE! Hydrazine! No air required, so it works clear to orbit! Well, what type of question did you EXPECT me to ask?) They have a tent with the live coverage on a few flatscreens, and everyone can party with everyone else there, like some sort of a cosmic fair where everyone knows everyone. Heck, Seth Green was there, introducing an amazing new musical fanfare written just for this mission! (It was AWESOME!!! It will be on iTunes at some point. This musical piece is STUNNING). Seth was super nice, getting pictures with everyone and being a general master of ceremonies for the presentation of the music to the press.
I must say, it was really a LOT of fun… worth coming out for, even though the Shuttle would clearly NOT fly today, as everyone was saying. But man, didn’t it seem sort of BRIGHT outside? Hmmm…. And has anyone actually FELT any rain recently?
Anyhoo, back to the space carnival! I ran over to the famous clock that they alway show on the live TV coverage and called my family on my cellphone and told them to watch the TV. As soon as they said that the clock was on TV I jumped up and down and waved my hat around like a total dork, and sure enough they could see me on TV back in South Carolina! HAR!!!
Then I decided to go over and look at the media tents (whew.. getting sweaty from all this walking.. it is so hot under this bright sun… bright sun!?!?!?!? Oh well, everybody knows it’s supposed to rain all day and cancel the launch. I must be imagining the sun burning through the clouds). The media tents are kind of interesting. When you watch liver coverage of the launch on a major network, you often see reporters, elevated well above the ground, perfectly lit, talking to the camera, with the shuttle on the pad flamed behind them. They look like they must be inside some sort of sky-scraper, or some elaborate fancy, glass-and-steel building overlooking the launch site.
Well, they ain’t.
What they have is these flimsy little tents that sit on stilts about 10 feet above the ground. On top of these stilts are simple wooden or steel platforms with a tent over them. Throw a few chairs on the platform, maybe a fancy-pants office-desk, and a few lights and a camera, and you have yourself a broadcasting station. All the reporters do is sit on their little wooden platforms on stilts, with their back to the space shuttle, and some lights and a camera in their face. This perfectly positions the reporter for his shot in front of the camera, with the shuttle in the background behind him, and a clear shot above all the people below. It LOOKS fancy at home, but is nothing more than a tent on stilts with really bright lights.
After perusing the media-tents, I decided to walk over towards the Vehicle Assembly Building, where all the parts of the Shuttle are stacked together. Man, I was SWEATING! Where is that sun-block I brought? I really need it. I mean, I shouldn’t even BE here getting sunburned for nothing, since everyone knows the bird clearly will not fly today because of the cloudiness and rain, but since I AM here, I might as well roll in the sun-block.. that bright Florida sun is HOT!
So, off to the V.A.B. and there I find the NASA employee area. This is where all the NASA employees gather in the tall grass to watch the launch. The view is not quite as PICTURESQUE as the press viewing area, but you ARE a bit CLOSER, so when the thing eventually DOES fly in a few days, you will see more detail and HEAR it more. About now I need to get a bottled water.. this sun is a killer. Even though we can’t fly today thanks to the weather, I might as well stay hydrated!
Slowly, of course, in layers, the truth is beginning to settle on my soul.
That thing on the pad has the power of a million bombs all ready to explode at the touch of a button, and that thing is about to FLY.
There are speakers set up in the grass field where all the employees are watching, and at launch minus 20 minutes the call comes in that weather has been condensed to one word: GO. A cheer goes up from the employees and I stand there in stunned disbelief, sunblock in one hand and bottled water in the other. About then, a truck comes racing down the road away from the pad and pulls into the grass field that all the employees are milling about in. And out jump the clean-suit guys!!! These are the people dressed in all white that buckle the astronauts up, and seal up the door once they are in. Each clean-suit guy has a number on him, and you see them on TV as they board, prep, and ultimately seal the astronauts up inside the Orbiter. Milling about outside their pickup truck in the knee-high grass, though, in their perfect white numbered suits, they look like superheros out of their element… they have their perfect clean white number suits, but are just milling about in the grass field a safe distance from the Orbiter, now that they have run for cover! This is NO DIFFERENT than when I would shoot model rockets as a kid, standing in the grass back from the rocket. How far back from the rocket? JUST FAR ENOUGH. So here we were, a thousand or so NASA employees, the clean-suit people, and me, all milling about in the grass, looking down the road to biggest bomb we’ve ever seen aimed right up at the sky… everyone at a (barely) safe distance.
Everyone except the four people that were IN the bomb, of course…….
At nine minutes the Atlantis computer takes control, and mission control, the employees, the world… just watch. At nine minutes and 20 seconds, the final word came through the speakers. Weather is GO. Mouth half-agape, all I could do was stare.
10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3- white smoke just sort of APPEARED all around the ship, shooting to the left and right and an incredible rate. This was completely silent to us – 2-1-0 – KaBOOM! The mammoth SRB’s were both lit and the bolts that restrain the ship exploded. The Shuttle lifted off the pad with a smart acceleration, and was at once too bright to look at. Here is what the TV can NOT show you: It can NOT show you how BRIGHT that exhaust is. The pixels on your TV just don’t GO that bright. But when you see it, you have to squint from the bright, glowing orange tail of fire the Shuttle rises on. It is brighter than anything you ever see, short of the sun. Then, just a moment later, the SOUND hits. This sound is LOUD. On TV, you hear this ‘CRACKLING’ sound from the SRB’s. It is NOT a smooth thunder, but instead a pulsing, throbbing, wildly-varying CRACKLING sound. I often wondered if this sound was real, or simply a defect in the microphones’ ability to pick up the sound. I can tell you: That sound is REAL. There is a thunderous roar of the SRBs that fill your body and the air, for sure. But on top of that, there is a strong CRACKING sound that hits your chest with wave after wave after wave of random pulsing and crackling. It is really quite amazing that the Orbiter and External Tank can withstand it.
The noise of the engine overwhelms the cheering of the crowd, and in a moment the Shuttle is gone through the cloud deck, leacing the clouds glowing from the flame, as the noise still throbs over the cloud. At that moment, we thought was had seen the last of the Suttle. But then, a second later, the ship rose into a narrow viewpoint that was clear to those on the ground through a hole in the clouds. In that moment, you could see the orbiter rising between cloud layers through the narrow hole in the lower layer. You could see the low cloud deck, the screaming Orbiter, and the upper cloud deck above it all at one, the Orbiter climbing right between the two cloud layers. You could really see the size of the ship and the clouds together for a half-second or so. Someone screamed at this brief un-expected second view of the ship, but then it was gone.
Now just a few pix….
The news media, making it their business to SEEM like more than they ARE. THIS is what they ACTUALLY ARE:
NASA employees gathered in the field, ready to watch the fruits of their labor!
The clean-suit guys are at left, NASA employees and family in foreground:
and, from above: