I’ve been to see a few launches at the Space Center. I’ve stood along the banks of the Banana River, right next to that ridiculously large digital clock. The shuttle sits on its pad, a few miles away.
It’s tough to miss KSC. The focal point is the Vehicle Assembly Building, the VAB. It’s one of the largest buildings in the world. There’s room enough to outfit two shuttles at once.
Within the VAB, the shuttle’s exterior is easily reached through a series of catwalks and platforms. Everything has got to be handy. Everything has got to be within arm’s reach.
The shuttle leaves the VAB on the ‘crawler’ and makes it way down a gravel road to the launch pad. The road is gravel because a paved road could never take the weight! The gravel, actually more stones than gravel, acts to cushion and spread the load.
You’ve got to realize they’re shooting off something the size of a pretty big building. Everything is oversized. This is not a subminiature operation.
The shuttle craft itself isn’t that large, but it’s strapped onto its propulsion system, the Roman candles which carries it into space.
You see the shuttle before you hear it. The light, as the rockets start firing is bright, even on a sunny Florida day. The light travels at 186,000 miles per second. The sound moves closer to 500 mph.
I’m not sure how this works, but before I’ve heard the shuttle, I’ve sensed the sound waves were coming at me. Whether it was a distortion of the view, or the movement of the tall grass, there was something that let me track its progress.
The shuttle is loud. More than ‘ear loud’ you feel the loudness as a vibration on your chest. Over on the launch pad, NASA is busy pouring water on the shuttle – massive quantities every second. The vibration of the shuttle, which causes the noise, is so violent that without water to act as a shock absorber, the shuttle would vibrate itself apart.
The flames and smoke are pushing against the ground. You can’t see it unless you’re on the pad, but there are trenches which channel the fire from the engines. If you fly over the launch site, you can see where grass has been singed and then has regrown.
The launch complex is lined with a chain link fence. I don’t think it’s for security as much as a delineation of where people shouldn’t be. Every once in a while, wedged tightly into the openings in the links, are rocks, big rocks thrown by the force of the thrust.
When I’ve been there, as the shuttle lifted, its trajectory took it south along with east. As it climbed, the shuttle rotated so, to us on the ground, it seemed to be upside down.
Somewhere, ten or fifteen seconds into the flight there is a moment where you want to rewind and do it again. There’s only one time to see what’s happening. Don’t blink. Stay rapt in your attention.
A trip to the launch complex after the shuttle has left is eerily strange. Lots of concrete. Lots of plumbing. It looks like an abandoned oil refinery. The area is ripe with the smell of the withes brew of chemicals used in the launch.
There are wire lines and baskets that run to the pad. In case of an emergency, the astronauts are supposed to be able to leave the shuttle, hop in a basket, and slide down the line to safety.
They’ve never been used in an emergency situation and I’d assume they’re dangerous enough not to use too often in practice either.
Later today, hopefully, everything will go as planned.