On May the 19th, I was fortunate enough to fulfil an ambition of many years - 19 to be exact. At 6.09am, among many other awe-inspired people, I watched the NASA Space Shuttle lift-off from the Kennedy Space Centre. This was an exquisite experience, not least because of the beautiful pre-dawn timing. This is the brief story of this launch. If you would like to see some pictures of the launch, click on the buttons at the bottom of this page.
The space shuttle launch can actually be seen from most of central Florida - even from the West (Gulf) coast. However, the best place is on NASA property, at the Kenedy Space Centre itself. Whilst good views can be had from across the Indian River some 10 miles from the launch site, NASA will get you to some 5 or 6 miles from Pad 39A. I was fortunate enough to obtain a ticket for the launch from NASA just three days before the the anticipated launch date. The price (US $15) gave me access to bring my car into the Kenedy Space Centre, and included bus transportation to the viewing area. Because of some delays to another launch the same week (the Atlas Rocket from Cape Canaveral), the Shuttle launch was put-back one more day to Friday morning, 19th May 2000. This was the latest in a line of delays. The mission (STS-101) was to have been launched in mid April. Three failed attempts in April (due to adverse weather at the cape, in Spain and Morocco - the emergency landing sites) meant that this mission to bring vital emergency supplies to the International Space Station, in a failing orbit, was now desperately overdue.
We left Orlando at around 1 am, and headed out to Kenedy Space Centre. Our car-pass allowed us to enter by the Southern or Eastern entrance. We chose the southern, to avoid the infamous queues from the eastern entrance. At 2.30 AM we were permitted to enter the complex, and headed up to the visitor's centre. The lights from the launch-pad (pad 39A) lit up the sky with beacons of light, visible more than 10 miles away.
At 3.30 AM, the huge fleet of NASA busses was mobilised, and we were transported to the viewing area - a large strip of grass on a bank between a causeway and swamp populated by Alligators. Across the water, some 5 miles away, the Atlantis stood on the launchpad, bathed in floodlights. Five miles really doesn't seem far in this context - and with a pair of binoculars, the Shuttle could be clearly seen. We spent two and a half hours or so at the viewing area listening to Launch Control on a tanoy system. There were messages about "gimbals" and trajectories, weather forecasts for Spain and Morocco, etc , etc. The holding period at T-20 minutes came and went, and there there was a 42 minute hold at T-9 minutes. The re-start of the count at T-9 was contingent on all systems reporting a "go" situation. The anticipation grew as we were treated to a full rendition of "Capcom - "go", FIDO - "go", etc - just as seen on Apollo 13 the movie. There was applause when a relieved voice at launch control stated "T-9 minutes and counting".
I can't quite understand how those last 9 minutes sped by. At T-31 seconds the computers all took over - and we knew that if there was a halt in this final stage, we would not see the launch that morning, as the clock would have to go back to T-9 minutes - and there was only a 5 minute window of opportunity because of the need to match the orbit of the ailing Space Station.
At T-6 seconds the three main engines were lit (in 120 millisecond rotation - we took their word for it!) and a glowing blanket of steam became visible. This is steam from the millions of gallons water released under the Shuttle to dampen the noise which would otherwise destroy the Shuttle. At T-0 - the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) were lit - and we had lift-off. And this really was as spectacular as you might imagine. It all happened so fast - and it all seemed so very close. The Shuttle, like some giant welder's torch - moved up into the sky, trailing a spectacular plume behind it. Around 25 seconds into the flight, the wall of sound reached us. This wasn't just a roar - it was a chest-shaking rumbling roar that shook everything.
And so Atlantis climbed - and here we were treated to the best bit yet. Launch had been around 15 minutes before sunrise - and as the Shuttle rose, it passed through dawn and into full sunlight, its trail glowing orange, red and yellow.
We saw the SRB separation, the tumbling rockets occasionally flashing as they spun. The trails of the falling SRBs were visible for all to see - even some 100 miles away.
And then - almost as quickly as it had started - it was all over. Only a drifting plume remained as evidence - the Atlantis now in orbit around the earth, I had finally seen a launch of men into space at one of only two places such things have ever happened.
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