Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Flying across the Atlantic

Gatwick airport, 0745 am. To my chagrin the airport shopping experience is already in full swing as a I burst into departures after just about the most rapid check-in and security process ever. I beat a hasty retreat to the bustling Café Rouge with its panoramic view of the runway as a backdrop for breakfast.

I’m almost on my way. Infact, as I retrospectively write this onboard the plane, the inflight information screen shows we are heading well out over the mid-Atlantic en route to Florida. Another seven or eight hours to go before the 747 touches down in Orlando.

Most of the 316 passengers will be heading off to theme park land - a few of us will be travelling in the opposite direction towards Kennedy Space Center on the east coast where putting people into space is, for the moment at least, still for real.

This Friday afternoon (in the evening UK time) the Space Shuttle Endeavour is set to blast off on its final flight - a 16 day mission to the orbiting International Space Station.

I’ll be attending the launch as Editor of Spaceflight magazine. This is the eleventh year I’ve been in the (part-time) post but it’s just my fourth trip to cover a Shuttle launch.

Of the others, I’ve actually only witnessed one live Shuttle launch - albeit a spectacular middle of the night one. The others got postponed for various reasons, so it is by no means a guaranteed event.

I’ll be meeting up with friends and fellow journalists and photographers who do regular stuff for Spaceflight, including Ken Kremer and Dwayne Day from the States, Joel Powell from Canada, and Gerard van de Haar and Rudolf van Beest from the Netherlands. We should have it covered between us!

My nine hour flight between London and the east coast of America is about as good as it gets at present for those of us confined to travelling the globe at heights of 35,000 feet in modern jet liners.

But when the engines of Endeavour ignite on the launch pad at 3.47 pm on Friday afternoon (8.47 pm UK time) the six men onboard will be catapulted into orbit inside just nine minutes.

In that first orbit they may very well fly across the southern part of the UK and, if that coincides with a clear sky, the orbiter can be seen with the naked eye tracking through the heavens as a bright swiftly moving ‘star’, with the just-separated external fuel tank trailing behind.

In that case, the Atlantic crossing for Endeavour will have taken a mere 20 minutes - which kind of puts my own trans-Atlantic journey into a little more perspective.

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