Tuesday, June 03, 2008

A Man Made Rising Sun


This past weekend was nothing short of a dream come true for me. I had the opportunity to join my wife at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida for the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery.

In ten short missions, the shuttle fleet will be permanently retired. This was one of my last chances to see America’s space program, as I had grown up with it, up close and personal.

The day before launch, I accompanied Stephanie’s twin sister, Patricia and some German friends on a VIP tour of the base facilities, visiting many of the sights I had the privilege of seeing two years ago when I came here for what, regrettably, turned out to be a scrubbed launch.

The biggest difference between the previous tour and this one was a spectacular night viewing. Flooded by Xenon spotlights, the shuttle appeared as a colossus, a technological marvel gleaming on the launch pad, poised hungrily for flight. It is beautiful enough to elicit gasps, slacken jaws and seduce even the most stoic tears.

STS-124, this mission’s designation, is delivering the Japanese KIBO (meaning “hope”) module, the largest experiment module yet installed on the International Space Station, and Japan’s first human-rated space facility. In the few days leading up to the launch, the station’s toilets malfunctioned, an unfortunate anomaly that stole the module's technological thunder thanks to the media’s incessant potty humor.

Usually, on the days leading up the a launch, NASA engineers are busy wrangling any number of potentially serious issues that crop up. This time around, there were no gremlins in the works and the lack of problems, rather than their presence, was making everyone uneasy. The weather too was more than cooperative; the skies the late afternoon of launch could not have been more beautiful.

The anticipation was palpable as we gathered at the Banana Creek viewing area. We claimed a small piece of grass right next to the water and waited, listening to Houston Mission Control chatter piped in over loud speakers. Stephanie, who has now seen four launches, was not with us. Busy working, she was viewing the launch from the Firing Room, the Cape’s version of Mission Control.

Indulge me, if you will, for a few technical paragraphs. I’ve chosen only the juiciest tidbits, I assure you.

The space shuttle has more than 2.5 million parts, making it the most complex machine ever built. It is made up of three components:

1. The External Fuel Tank
The external fuel tank which provides fuel to the space shuttle's main engines during launch, stands taller than a 15-story building, and when filled with propellant, weighs 1,668,5000 pounds.

2. The Solid Rocket Boosters
An individual Solid Rocket Booster is only two feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty, but weighs three times as much. The two SRBs generate a combined thrust of 6,600,000 pounds, equivalent to 14,700 six-axle diesel locomotives and provides 71% of the total launch thrust. Each booster burns five tons of propellant per second — two million times the rate at which your car consumes fuel. If their heat energy could be converted into electric power, the two boosters, firing for two minutes, would produce enough energy to supply the entire power demand of 87,000 homes for a full day. The speed of the gases exiting the nozzle is more than 6,000 mph, or five times the speed of sound and three times the speed of a high-power rifle bullet. The combustion gases in the booster burn at 6,100 degrees Fahrenheit, two-thirds the temperature of the surface of the Sun — hot enough to boil steel.

3. The Orbiter
The Orbiter launches like a rocket, orbits like a spacecraft and lands like a plane (or un-powered glider to be more specific). Its engines operate at a greater temperature than any mechanical system in use today. At -423F, the liquefied hydrogen fuel is the second coldest liquid on Earth. If the shuttle’s main engines pumped water instead of fuel, they would drain an average sized swimming pool in 25 seconds. When the hydrogen and liquid oxygen are combined, the temperature in the main combustion chamber flashes to 6,000 degree Fahrenheit, hotter than the boiling point of iron. Just one engine generates enough thrust for more than two Boeing 747s. In fact, the energy released by the three space shuttle main engines at full power is equivalent to the same amount of energy created by 23 Hoover Dams.

At times you could hear a pin drop at Banana Creek, such was our baited expectation. Other times, as when the “All systems go!” was announced, the crowd erupted into violent applause. Our eyes bounced between the clock beside us and the pad before us.

I was warned that I shouldn’t take pictures, that I should simply take it all in as best I could and let my memory sort it all out. And while I understood then (and even better now) why people said that, I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to capture such a magnificent experience on film. I set the camera for consecutive bursts, framed the pad, tried to keep my eyes on the real thing, and when the moment came, depressed the shutter and hoped for the best.

At T minus 16 seconds, the sound suppression system began drenching the platform and SRB trenches with 300,000 gallons of water. This is to protect the orbiter from the acoustical energy damage and rocket exhaust reflected from the flame trench during liftoff.

All of this is invisible to us, of course. But at T minus six seconds, the shuttle’s three main engines ignited. The gathered water from the sound suppression system flashed instantly into a massive plume of steam that was immediately visible. The crowd began to shriek.

At T minus 0 seconds, the solid rocket boosters ignited. There was no turning back now. The exhaust column exited the flame trench at near the speed of sound, causing a visible rippling of shockwaves along the flame and smoke ejection. Though the main engines had started, the vehicle didn’t immediately lift off. Extraordinarily, it is clamped to the pad with titanic bolts.

The thrust from the main engines caused the entire launch stack (boosters, tank and shuttle) to pitch down about two meters (referred to in NASA jargon as the “nod”). Six seconds later the boosters flexed back into their original shape and the launch stack pitched upright. Once everything was entirely vertical, pyrotechnic nuts detonated, severing the bolts and releasing the stack.

Discovery lifted, slowly at first and then gathered speed as it cleared the tower. Almost immediately, it began a roll and pitch program to set its orbital inclination, turning its backside to the viewing area. The vehicle climbed in a progressively flattening arc, accelerating as the weight of the SRBs and main tank decreased. Although it weighs more than 4.5 million pounds at launch, the shuttle accelerates from zero to about nine times the speed of a rifle bullet to attain Earth orbit in less than nine minutes. It breaks the sound barrier only 52 seconds into flight. During this time, 3.5 million pounds of propellant are consumed.

Many people have claimed that their favorite part of a launch is the concussive vibrations you feel in your chest as the sound waves reach the onlookers. The sound takes a good 20 seconds or more to reach the viewing area, beginning softly before roaring to life. The combined blast from the five rockets is ferocious. It is a ravenous sound, angry and all consuming. If the heavens themselves could be consumed in flame, this is what it would sound like. Others love watching those same sound waves ripple visibly across the water. Sadly, I experienced neither.

The most memorable part for me was the shocking intensity of the exhaust. The orange luminosity was almost too bright to view, like looking at the sun and then finding yourself blinded to everything else around you.

The orbiter zeroed in on the ISS, 236 statute miles above the earth’s surface, and visibly altered its trajectory for the impending orbital insertion. Within a minute and a half, the orbiter had technically reached space, traveling in excess of 17,500 mph.

And still we could see it.

Two minutes after blast-off and at an altitude of 24 miles, the boosters separated. Soon parachutes would deploy and the tubes would be collected by waiting ships approximately 141 miles downrange, for refurbishment and reuse. The shuttle was now entirely on its own power. Amazingly, though it was nearly 30 miles away, the shuttle and the boosters were still visible, illuminated by their glowing exhausts.

The orbiter, external fuel tank still attached, was now little more than a bright star set against an azure blue sky. Then, in a blink, it pulled from view. Though we could not see it occur, explosive bolts detonated and released the external tank, which fell back to earth and burned up in the atmosphere.

The shuttle moves so fast you begin questioning whether you actually saw anything at all. Viewing a launch is a completely surreal experience, almost like a dream. Is that line of smoke, which mere moments before surged and undulated like a thing alive, an exhaust plume or merely clouds dissipating in the wind? Even now, as I try to recall the few moments it was in view, I have a hard time recollecting the visual details. Luckily, I have the pictures to fill in the blanks.

The launch was an awe-inspiring experience and one I would lustfully love to repeat. The space shuttle is the dream of human flight, somehow corralled into a sleek shape and held together within a metallic shell.

But it is also hopelessly earth-bound. The shuttle, as incredible as it is, was a technological step backward for this country specifically and human exploration in general. We had been sending men to another planetoid, but halted that program in favor of a vehicle incapable of leaving earth orbit.

Luckily, that time is nearly over.

NASA engineers are already hard at work developing The Constellation program, which is to herald humankind’s return to the moon after an almost 50 year absence. Borrowing on the fundamentals established with Apollo but endowed with exponentially advanced technology, the Constellation program returns America to the vanguard of interstellar exploration. But this time, the moon is not the final destination. It is merely an off-planet training ground where NASA can practice for the next step in our exploratory evolution — human footprints on the scarlet soil of Mars.

Had we not abandoned the moon 30 years ago, we might be on Mars already.

NASA represents power and promise, a tangible example of humankind’s thirst for exploration and discovery, a physical representation of our species’ yearning to break from our terrestrial bonds, push into an uncharted frontier and dare to become greater than we were born to be.

* * *

For many more pictures, click here for the Canaveral tour and here for the launch itself. For video of the launch, click here for the NASA feed and here for a far inferior video that will, nonetheless, give you some sort of idea of what it was like to be there and experience it first hand.


Blogger megan said...

I got a link to your blog in an email from Patricia, and just wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading your description of the shuttle launch. Thanks for helping me feel like I was there too! :)

2:11 AM  
Anonymous POD said...

That was probably the most wonderful and prosaic description of a shuttle launch I have read in my entire life. How wonderful to have experienced this event through your words...

You look great by the way!

5:25 AM  
Blogger *carrie* said...

Hey, Brandon. I, too, was sent here by Patricia. Enjoyed reading about this powerful experience!

8:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Brandon. I will be sharing this with my son, Dylan (4), who can tell me all about SRBs and the main fuel tank and how they are merely the slingshot to shoot the shuttle into Outer pSace as he pronounces it.

You have a way with words and pictures, my friend. Keep it up and you will be rewarded fiscally as you have already and still are being rewarded with all of your readers' admiration.

Hi to Steph!
Paul et al

11:06 AM  
Anonymous Deon said...

You are so lucky to have witnessed such a wonderful sight. I also agree with the rest that, the way you describe the lauch is wonderful and it does make you feel as though you were there to see it. Thanks Brandon keep up the excellent writing.

5:44 PM  
Anonymous Gilly said...

DUDE are you freaking kidding me! Amity is in Jacksonville watched the shuttle launch from Jacksonville...WHY DIDNT YOU TELL ME! I WOULD HAVE TAKEN LEAVE AND WENT THAT WAY....I have never seen a launch! Are you kidding me I can't believe you didn't tell me...I have not seen one go yet...I hope to one of these days if I had known you were going to be there I would have taken leave and came over!e

7:46 PM  
Anonymous CMorton said...


Was just thinking, I think I am older than you, but I was in 10th grade when the shuttle Challenger blew up. Those pictures of McCauliffe's parents looking up at the launch and then the explosion have stuck in my mind (I always thought the rest of the crew got the short end, because so much attention was lavished on a teacher who got a chance to do something that just about every person I knew woudl have loved to have risked their life to do). Of course that year a film came out that I must have watched on video a million times - Space Camp (I had a long and nearly unending crush on Lea Thompson, so trust me, it wasnt because I thought it was Gone with teh Wind). So, I wondered. Did you think about 1986 when you were there? Or Space Camp? The last movie I went to see (think it was Prince Caspian, which I enjoyed by the way morethan the book, which I always thought showed that Lewis cranked it out in three months so he could get to Dawn Treader, the book he wanted to write), and they had a preview of some series that is either IMAX or Discovery Cahnnel on the history of Space Flight. My wife Tan and I looked at each other wiht almost tears in our eyes, because the idea of going to the stars remains one of those nearly universally human asperations.

Big build up to this second question (first, did you think about 1986? or Space Camp?) - what is your favourite space movie? Appolo 13? The Right Stuff (a great great film but eihter needed to be an hour longer or half teh lenght)? And did your watching the launch make that film more real?

7:49 PM  
Anonymous Warren said...

Awwww. I am so jealous. The only shuttle lift-off I ever went to was delayed a day and I had to miss it.

7:57 PM  

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