March 26, 2011
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“Endeavour” (May 2011)

20 years of manned flights to orbit and I have never made the time to go see a Shuttle Launch.


So the first time we went to Titusville to watch it was in 428X, a nice flight, but they scrubbed the Shuttle launch because they found cracks in the fuel tank during fueling.

The second time we went to Titusville there were biblical tornadoes, thunderstorms, and floods, so I had to drive (about 8 hours) and they scrubbed the launch because some heaters for the fuel lines broke, and the main control computer for the engines was found inoperative a few hours before launch.

Listening in on the right radio frequencies and web pages and real-time NASA feeds, you start to get the tiniest glimpse of hoe MUCH is going on behind the scenes, as hundreds of engineers and technicians are running hundreds of checklists at dozens of locations to make sure that thousands of systems are all running at once. Systems attached to a million pounds of liquid hydrogen and oxygen, and an airplane that will be pulled up to 18,000 miles per hour. In space.

At any rate, the first 2 trips down there were fun exercise for 428X and my car, but resulted in nothing more than a peripheral peek into the intricate and mysterious workings of the tremendous system used to put several hundred thousand pounds in orbit.

But the third time, as often, the charm.

The flight down in 428x was fun, just sailing along down the coast from South Carolina, surfing along the top of the clouds listening to techno, and then circling the Titusville area to see the pad from the air (talking to ATC, they keep you about 10 miles from the pad… far enough you can’t see it in detail, but close enough that you can still see it). Then a landing at Dun Airpark in Titusville (the dinkiest little airport you can find.. little more than a few trailers beside a small strip of pavement) and a cab right into Titusville to stay at the Three Oaks Motel.. the ultimate “Econobox” lodge left over from 1960. Run down and dingy, the basic little hotel has a very very nice Indian family running it, and sits 2 blocks from the best place the public can watch the Shuttle lift-offs… it’s perfect.

So let me tell you about Titusville: This is a dingy little town, mostly deserted and half-empty most of the time, left over from the moon-shot days. Run-down hotels and simple diners are splattered along the roadside, mixed with random chain restaurants and gigantic old Sears department store clearly built in the 60’s before anyone could buy anything on-line. All is decaying and mostly forgotten now, but a half-dozen times per year, the town sort of fills up with transients, all there, like me, to see the same thing. The hotels are full, the diners are running over-time, and giant R-V’s line the side of US-1 like a giant travelling circus.

So, we found a little viewing area on the coast of Titusville 2 blocks form the Three-Oaks, and 2 blocks from a diner, and put down our lawn-chairs to watch. From the distance of 15 miles or so, we could see the giant Vehicle Assembly building and several launch pads as distant silhouettes rising out of the flat Florida horizon. You can NOT actually see the Shuttle itself, as the shuttle, External Tank, SRB, and giant launch pad all sort of blur together at that distance as one sort of jagged hump on the horizon. No matter how well you know what the Shuttle LOOKS like, you can NOT quite pick it out from the pad it is sitting on.. you see only a vague ‘something’ poking above the horizon just a bit, off in the distance. About 40 other people had found the little spot of grass by the river, hidden away behind a pump-house and surrounded by trees, so the 40 of us seemed to be in our own little world, obscured by the pumphouse and trees behind and beside us, but with a clear view out across the river to pad 39. We were like 40 little mice hiding behind the wall, watching out through the mouse-hole together to see what the cat would do out in the kitchen. Conversation was very light as everybody kept a nervous eye on their watches as 8:55 am approached. There were no audible count-downs on our little lawn. No monitors showing close-up views. No news coverage or commentary. No reporters or audio feed or anything else. It was just the 40 of us hidden away on our little lawn watching a dark clump of hardware on the horizon, 15 miles away.

I THOUGHT we still had two minutes or so to go when people in the crowd starting gasping.

I looked up to see smoke suddenly roiling out from under the clump on the horizon. The smoke was rapidly roiling and bubbling out to the sides, spreading silently out and away from the little tower on the horizon. Suddenly a tiny little arrow began to rise smartly from the ground… a tiny little arrow on top of a bright orange flame… a blindingly bright orange flame. Now this is what you can NOT see on TV… on ANY TV: The horizon, the sky, the water, the land… they were all sort of DIM under the overcast, but the flame from the SRB’s was BRIGHT. A BRIGHT BRIGHT yellow-orange tower of flame trailing hundreds of feet behind the climbing arrow.

All of this was completely silent. There was not a sound to be heard.

As the Shuttle came through a thousand feet or so, it disappeared into the cloud deck, gone from view on it’s way to space.

THEN the sound started.

Taking 15 seconds to reach us, the roar form the engines started gradually, muffled by the terrain between the orbiter and us. Then, as the Shuttle climbed out into a totally unobstructed path to us, the sound began to grow… louder and louder. The sound is NOT what you hear on TV, which is a ‘crackling’ sound, but is instead a thundering ROAR, starting quiet and building in intensity. Louder and louder and louder, even though the craft itself is long gone. The dull thundering roar continued to build as we could only IMAGINE where the space-ship must be up above those clouds, and the smoke-trail left by the engines casting a shadow for maybe 100 miles.