Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Launchpad Patrol

A one-of-a-kind perspective on NASA’s shuttle missions

When we see that our crew on duty has entered a hold at the mission support point, we stroll outside to stand on the ramp in front of the hangar, our eyes turned to the east. We're about to witness an event that I wish every American could have an opportunity to witness. From where we stand, we see the shuttle rise above the palm trees a second or two before we're hit by the sound. The roar from the engines has a slightly higher pitch than thunder, but it has the same power as sustained rolling thunder. You feel the vibration in your body. The ground shakes, windows rattle, and the sound is every bit as awesome as the sight. Soon after liftoff, the shuttle executes a 180-degree roll as it climbs into the sky atop a column of white smoke, and from where we stand it appears to arc slightly toward the north and east instead of making a perfectly vertical climb. As the distance increases, the roar changes to a strange staccato popping noise.

Two minutes after liftoff, you can see the solid rocket boosters separate and start to drift away from the orbiter. The smoke, now rapidly diminishing, follows the SRBs. From that moment on, the orbiter becomes increasingly harder to track and soon becomes impossible to see with the naked eye because the main engines, although still burning, produce no smoke. At night, your eye can continue to track the shuttle until about eight minutes after liftoff, when you see the light from the main engines blink off. And just that quickly, seven people have entered orbit.

When landing, even though the shuttle announces its arrival with a distinctive double sonic boom that can be heard all over central Florida, it's still difficult to catch more than a quick glimpse of the orbiter. It leaves no vapor trail, and it descends so rapidly that it's hard to spot.

I've always thought the space program stood as a shining example of the United States' greatness. No other nation on earth has the technology and resources to land men on the moon, or build and fly a fleet of spacecraft with the capabilities of the NASA shuttles. Now, the shuttle program is coming to an end, and it may be many years before we see its equal. But I must believe the spirit of our country won't allow us to accept second or third place in the space race. Okay, maybe the shuttle program was too complex to ever achieve the level of safety we expected. Maybe it was too expensive to be practical. But were those not some of the difficulties President Kennedy spoke of in his 1962 speech when he issued the challenge that started the space race? "We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard..." I believe that spirit is a big part of what made America great.

My boyhood heroes were astronauts; they still are. The date of this launch was the 16th of January, 2003. At the time of that launch, no one knew that the orbiter Columbia and its crew of seven exceptional human beings, five men and two women, six of them American and one Israeli, would be lost in a re-entry accident 15 days later. I am profoundly grateful to them, and to everyone else at NASA, for having the courage to risk it all in the advancement of the knowledge and the capabilities of the human race.


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