Friday, June 30, 2006

A Voyage Of Discovery

At 3:49 EDT tomorrow (Sat), the space shuttle Discovery is due to blast off from the KSC and begin mission STS-121 to the international space station.

There might be a bit more public interest in this launch and mission as it's been a while since the last one and of course, we now realise just how dangerous these things can be. For several years it was all mundane and almost dull and launches were squeezed in after the funny last news item and the national weather forecast. "Oh and by the way, the space shuttle lifted off today but nothing exploded and nobody died in a fireball so, over to Dave for the weather."

The flash fire in the capsule of Apollo 1 in 1967 which killed the 3 astronauts inside took place while the rocket was on the ground and so wasn't dramatic enough to live in the memory of most people. Apollo 13 was another matter and for those of us old enough to remember it, the memories are clear and vivid. Where were you when it happened ? I was in school and soundly asleep actually. At 10:08pm EST on April 13th 1970, it was already April 14th where I lived. It was 3:08 in the morning to be precise and like I said, I was asleep in my 6th form room after another day of trying to cram 2 years of knowledge into my head in time for the upcoming final exams that would determine if I'd be going to university. Drama enough you might think !

But I was a NASA geek. I knew every stat available from the amount of fuel burned per second at liftoff to how rectal matter was broken down while in space. Always a good fact to throw in at dinner parties. I woke to the news of the emergency and over the next few days I was the class spokesperson on it's progress. I'd be allowed to leave lessons every so often to check on the latest updates and report back to my teacher and classmates who until then, wouldn't have known a main bus B undervolt from a double decker bus. I was in my element and would draw diagrams on the blackboard which would've impressed those in mission control. Of course once it was all over and the crew were safe and sound on the aircraft carrier, life went back to normal for us geeks. I finished my exams, got into college and waited for the opportunity to get to visit a NASA site for myself.

19 years later I made it. I went on my first trip to America and headed straight for the KSC on the east coast of Florida and all it needed was St. Peter to be at the gates and I really would've thought I was in Heaven ! I went back several times on that trip and several more times in subsequent trips. I visited other NASA sites as the years went by but as the saying goes - you always remember your first. Oh be-have !!

My final dream was to be present at a launch of any kind but with weather and mechanical delays always a possibility, it would've been foolish to plan a trip based on a launch date. I just hoped that some time when I was in the US, there would be a launch and in 2000 my dream came true. I was over for 6 months and we were on our way to Key West and popped across to the KSC for a visit. I didn't even know a launch was imminent ( I was losing my geekiness ) until I saw a notice about buying viewing tickets partially sticking out of the pay booth as we were leaving. Talk about being meant to be !

We talked our way into getting tickets even though they weren't officially on sale and the launch date timed perfectly with our return trip up from Key West a few weeks later. The launch of Atlantis on mission STS-101 on May 19th 2000 was to be my dream come true. We had to be there very early as they don't want vehicles driving anywhere near the site in the hours before the launch. At the centre we boarded buses and were driven to the viewing area and had to wait there for several hours. Now I'd seen THE viewing area on tv many times. All those press people and VIP's on bleachers; banks of electronically controlled cameras on racks; huge NASA cameras on motorised bases to track the shuttle into the blackness of space and of course, the famous enormous digital countdown clock ticking off the seconds to liftoff and then recording the time into the mission.

So as we got off the bus and looked around in the near darkness (it was about 3am by this time), I wondered if the driver had got lost. We were on a grassy bank (not a sharpshooter in sight though) and after my eyes switched to night vision, I noted that launch pad 39a was so far away that I needed my camcorder on max zoom just to see it at all. What a crock. Having got over the fact that we weren't VIPs and so relegated to a view somewhat more distant than I'd been anticipating, we settled down to wait. And wait. And wait. The hours passed like.......hours and there was nothing to do. We listened to the occasional announcement from Mission Control over the loudspeakers and heard the dialogue between them and the shuttle crew who as it turns out, weren't even in the shuttle when we got there !! Tardy bunch.

Then about 5:45am things perked up a bit and I started to recognise the countdown patter from my teenage geek days. Wow, it was so real now. Not on tv; not on the radio......but live in front of me. To me, the voice was a mixture of Walter Cronkite with a bit of Darth Vadar thrown in for effect. I was all a twitter and couldn't make up my mind if I should take a still photo of the launch or take video footage or just watch it - watch something I'd waited my whole life to see and might never see again. The eyes had it

Well I used all 3 actually but mainly I watched it and hoped for the best with the other two. At T-6 the main engine lit and the plume of steam became visible to us. No noise.....nothing. The shuttle swayed slightly as it started to fight against the restraining latches. At T-0 the solid booster ignited and when the latches were pulled back, we had liftoff......liftoff of the space shuttle Atlantis on it's flight to the international space station. Sorry, but that's what the announcer said at the time and it thrilled me then. It was 6:11am and suddenly the blinding light from the burning fuel lit up the whole area better than a motel 6 lightbulb. Much better really. I had the camcorder poised and set it to try and follow the flight of Atlantis without my eye anywhere near it. 'Point and shoot' had never been taken so literally before.

This was one time I was glad God had designed human eyes to be vastly superior to a camcorder lens. What my Hi-8 recorded was a blob of white light moving slowly up into the air and heading northwards, getting smaller all the time - but just a blob nevertheless. Camcorder technology had a way to go to catch up with those NASA cameras or my own two eyes. What I actually saw was Atlantis rising majestically off the launch pad atop an incandescent white light silence apart from the voice of Mission Control giving us a second by second update on speed, altitude and the fact that the astronauts were frantically looking for 4th gear. No seriously, it was bizarre. Atlantis was clearing the tower and we were hearing nothing.

Did NASA throw an area wide mute switch ? Had they THAT much power ?? I'd need to watch the video footage to get the exact time, but it seemed about 6 seconds after the liftoff that it hit us like an audio tsunami. Suddenly I had an image of my science teacher telling me about the speed of light versus the speed of sound and it all became clear. The camcorder recorded it as 30 seconds of distortion because the built in mic couldn't handle the volume. It was like being at a Who concert back in 1970 and you had to shout to be partially heard by someone standing next to you. Awesome. I didn't so much SEE the launch as FEEL it. It was the ultimate surround sound experience.

After that, the lack of synchronicity (if that word exists) didn't matter as the image was there for all to see. The sound delay didn't matter. I'd no idea what I'd captured on video but once the shuttle became a speck to my eyes, I brought the camcorder to my eye and found I could actually still see it. I captured the jettison of the solid rocket boosters but that was it. It was way out of range of even my camcorder when staging took place so I set it down and suddenly noticed what Atlantis had left behind - a beautiful spent fuel trail that stretched for many miles almost back to the launch pad and was being partially backlit by the rising sun.

I made it my one and only still photo and backed it up with video footage. I only had a 1mp Kodak camera back then so it's not the greatest snapshot but it does what a photo is supposed to do - it brings back a memory.

The smoke trail remained for a very long time and parts were still there as we slowly made our way back to the row of coaches. In the short time it took to reach them, Atlantis was already in orbit and the area around us had the feel of a wedding reception with the last guests leaving.

And so I jump in time to today.....just over a day before the launch of Discovery. I so wish I could be there to see it but my next trip doesn't start for 5 weeks yet. I'll make do with watching it on tv if they can be bothered to show it - or on the internet if they can't. Manned spaceflight is still controversial of course but no matter on which side of the fence you make your stand, you must admit that a shuttle launch is something to behold and I'm so thankful that on that day 6 years ago, one dream became reality.

But as the NASA IMAX movie states, the dream is still alive. God speed Discovery.

No comments:

Most Recent Awards

Most Recent Awards