Sunday, 10 July 2011

A jewel of brightness

If there could be a downside to standing near the countdown clock at KSC to witness a launch from the closest point possible - a fraction over three miles - then it is because they no longer broadcast the launch commentary over the PA system.

There are probably good reasons, like the fact that it would upset all the TV companies doing their live broadcasts from the back of the site.

So, we have only the countdown clock as our means of assessing the state of progress and to mark the passage of time towards launch.

When 00:08:59 suddenly appears after the final scheduled ‘hold’ at t-minus nine minutes you know things are getting closer to the grande finale.

There’s excited chatter and people begin shouting out the numbers as the time clicks closer to zero - two minutes and counting, one minute... The excitement and tension is spilling out.

And then we stare in disbelief. Just as it seemed Atlantis had beaten the odds the countdown clock freezes. Cries of dismay - what can have happened at such a late stage? Surely that’s today’s launch attempt over?

Indeed, as the seconds ticked into long minutes some people even started retreating from their spots thinking that it really was all over for today at least.

Out there we had no way of knowing what was happening. No announcements to the assembled crowd - instead of the roar of the mighty engines all remained silent.

Of course, those watching round the world on NASA TV knew that mission control was unsure whether the ‘beanie cap’ that covers the top of the giant orange external tank had properly retracted.

Sounds crazy when you are at the actual launch site but I quickly dialled up home 4000 miles away in England where my wife was glued to NASA’s broadcast.

"It’s a problem with the beanie cap," she quickly explained and then, "but it’s been sorted and they are going!" With that the countdown clock burst to life again, resolutely marking off the last 30 seconds.

Smoke billowed from the pad and at first the Shuttle rose in silence. Then the crackling of its engines comes rumbling across, transforming into a noise that shakes the ground and rocks through your whole body.

Rising majestically one final time, Atlantis spread her wings and powered into the sky with what is understood to have been one million people watching from every available viewpoint in this part of Florida.

The orbiter climbed on a blinding column of fire from the same pad that launched Columbia in 1981 on the very first Shuttle flight, a rippling roar emanating from its main engines and boosters as spectators everywhere cheered, clapped and cried.

The flame was brighter than anything you can manage, almost too piercing to look at in real life - a jewel of brightness climbing into the heavens.

Though it didn't take long for Atlantis to disappear through the clouds, it left a lasting impression for those on the ground.

Even after it reached orbit some eight minutes after liftoff the billowing trail of smoke and steam it left behind maintained a steady link between the launch complex and cloud deck, as if holding on to the last departing Shuttle.

My 'automated' snaps turned out surprisingly well and some of them are added above along with (below) an official NASA shot of the KSC crowd, in which I can be spotted in the foreground if you know exactly where to look.

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