There appears to be a bank of sea fog rolling in off the Atlantic as we’re cleared for a predawn takeoff on runway 09 at Titusville’s Space Coast Executive Airport in Florida. As we climb through 500 feet we enter the fog, and the tower hands us off to NASA approach control, which then clears us into the restricted area. We’re instructed to fly a heading of 090 degrees with a climb to 3,000 feet, and to report our other company aircraft in sight. We had been informed by the crew of our sister ship that the fog didn’t extend much beyond the east bank of the Indian River and, as expected, we soon break out into the clear to a sight beneath us of Cape Canaveral’s nighttime panorama and the Kennedy Space Center.
Off our nose and perpendicular to our direction of flight is the 15,000-foot shuttle landing strip. Just beyond the runway, even in the dark, we can plainly see the incredibly huge Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), and a couple of miles farther east near the coast, the shuttle Launch Complexes 39A and 39B. As we fly past the VAB, we can see the wide, white, gravel track upon which the crawler transports the fully assembled shuttle to the launch complex. South of the VAB, we can recognize the visitor’s center with its “rocket garden.” Still farther south is Patrick Air Force Base, and lined up along the east coast, south of the NASA facilities, are the Air Force launch pads.
At Launch Complex 39A, there’s a space shuttle in the final hours of launch preparation. Our mission this morning is to provide security over the launch complex and surrounding space center, to ensure that no unauthorized personnel get close enough to pose a danger to themselves or to the shuttle. We work for Airscan, a civilian company contracted by NASA and the Air Force to provide airborne security for space launches. We fly two-hour missions, alternating with our other company aircraft and crews, so that one of us will be on watch constantly until the shuttle mission is either launched or scrubbed.
We’re flying an aircraft ideally suited for this type of mission. Vietnam veterans would recognize it as the O2 Bird Dog. Civilians call it the Cessna Skymaster. It not only provides the safety and systems redundancy of twin engines, but unlike most twins, also allows an unobstructed view of the ground for a crew of three. Mounted on a hard point under the left wing is a highly capable, remotely operated camera turret, with high-resolution infrared and color video cameras connected to a microwave downlink transmitter, which allows authorities on the ground to view our video in real time. Another outstanding capability of this aircraft is that it carries enough fuel for a ridiculous eight hours of loiter time.
Approaching 39A, we’re in contact with our sister ship as we see them break station and turn west to fly the ILS approach at Titusville. I tell them the fog shouldn’t be too much of a problem, and they can expect to see the runway before they reach decision height. As they depart, we descend to 2,500 feet, and enter a one-mile orbit around the launch complex. Out my window, the protective shroud that covers the orbiter has been retracted, and there, in all her glory, stands the space shuttle Columbia.
Although I’ve flown this mission many times in the past, I’m still awed by the spectacle just below. The entire shuttle assembly, with its orange external tank and twin solid rocket boosters, is bathed in an intense white light from a bank of flood lights surrounding the launch pad. From my point of view, the reflected light from the white surface of the orbiter is so intense it almost appears to be lit from within, like some giant sculpted lightbulb. There’s a small plume of white vapor rapidly dissipating as it escapes from somewhere near the top of the external tank, and on the ground at a safe distance within the launch complex perimeter, there’s a large yellow flame where excess gas is burned off. The shuttle gives off a very strong impression of being alive, poised and ready, waiting only for the word to go.
When the sun comes up, it becomes apparent that most of the Cape is still semi-wilderness, covered by trees and brush with scattered pockets of swamp. Most of the Cape is in fact a wildlife preserve. We’ve often seen deer, wild pigs, gators, bald eagles and, once, even a panther with our cameras. Just offshore, I often see large manta rays and dolphins, occasionally a school of sharks and, once, a large pod of whales. The facilities of the Space Center, connected by roads, appear like islands in a sea of brush. If not for our infrared-camera system, the brush could easily provide concealment for a terrorist or saboteur.
The Skymaster used to monitor Kennedy Space Center has a remotely operated camera turret with high-resolution infrared cameras.
As I continue flying circles around the complex, I’m reminded of the history that has been written at this place. When I gaze upon Complex 39B, I’m looking at the spot where Apollo 11 departed Planet Earth on its way to mankind’s first landing on the moon. Complexes 39A and 39B were built to launch the Saturn V moon rockets, but after the Apollo program, they were converted to support shuttle launches. The first shuttle launch was on the 12th of April, 1981, when Columbia was launched from 39A. On the south side of my orbit, I can look out my right window, and see what’s left of Launch Complex 34A, the site of the Apollo 1 fire. It’s no longer in use, and has been left as a memorial to the three crew members who died on that tragic day in 1967.
Shortly before my shift ends, we’re informed that it’s time for the flight crew to be transported to the shuttle from a building near the VAB. At that point, our task is to provide over-watch for the transit as we escort a small convoy of vehicles, including the coach carrying the crew, to the launch complex. We fly a spiral pattern over the convoy as they proceed slowly toward the shuttle, watching the road ahead and the surrounding brush for any sign of trouble.
After the crew convoy reaches its destination, we have time to fly only a few more laps around the complex before we hear our sister ship on the frequency announcing they’re inbound to relieve us. As our other company crew takes up the orbit we’ve been maintaining for the last two hours, we say goodbye and turn out to the west for the short flight back to Titusville. By that time, the fog has burned off, and we’re able to make a visual approach. The sky is clear, the sun is shining, and it looks like it will be a great day for a launch.
After landing and refueling, my crewmates and I are on standby. We’ll fly another shift if there’s a delay in the countdown. If there are no delays, we’ll watch the launch from the ramp in front of the hangar, which is a good vantage point, but the best possible view will belong to the crew who just relieved us. A few minutes before the countdown reaches its end, the crew on duty will move the aircraft to a holding pattern over our “mission support point,” which is a waypoint designated for our use by NASA inside the restricted area, at a safe distance from the launch complex. The trick then is to time your turn so that your nose is pointed toward the pad as the engines light off, so the pilot can watch the action as the camera operator records video of the liftoff. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a seat in the VIP bleachers, I don’t think there’s any way to have a better view of a launch.
Airborne over our mission support point is an especially good place to view a night launch. The show starts with a very rapidly expanding, almost explosive, billowing cloud of smoke and steam under and around the base of the platform the shuttle is standing on. The instant the shuttle leaves the pad, you see that the cloud of smoke and steam contains a baby sun that appears to be lifting the shuttle skyward. As it climbs, the brilliant white light beneath the shuttle is so intense that it illuminates the entire Cape and the east coast of Florida as brightly as daytime, as if it were indeed a small sun rising. A friend of mine said it makes you feel as if you’re witnessing a supernatural event.
Back at the airport as the countdown continues, my crewmates and I grab some coffee and relax in our company offices as we watch the video transmitted by our sister ship. It has been a long night, and could also be a long day if the launch is delayed.
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.