Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Into Orbit

Did you see the launch of Discovery today? Wish I had been there in person. Like many Floridians, the space program holds a special place in my heart. Many of us grew up with NASA in the beginning phases. My father worked at Cape Canaveral in the early 60's and we had passes to see many launches. On a morning in May of 1961, my family and I stood on the beach watching the first manned space flight lift off. We worried that Alan Shepard would make it back safely. Shepard was only up there for three or four minutes before he plopped down into the Atlantic but it was scary and fascinating at the same time. The space age had arrived!

In 1962, we saw John Glenn lift off and orbit the earth three times. He was the first to do so and it took about 5 hours before he splashed down. Astronauts were our heros and we Floridians took enormous pride in the space program. I recall being afraid that the little Mercury capsules would sink and the ships wouldn't get to them in time.

Before manned flights, I remember my mother keeping a list of satellite orbit times and we would sit in the yard in the 1950's, reclined on our aluminum chaise lounges watching the night-time sky and identifly the little lights as they traversed the sky. It was a big deal if we could see more than one satellite at a time in the southern sky. My mother would know which satellite each tiny moving light was, what was its purpose and if it was American or Russian. Mother always loved anything to do with the heavens and space.

Over the years I saw many Atlas, Titan, and Saturn rockets as well as the Shuttles lift off. It was a habit that I never broke. Even before DH was an H, we would hear of a pending launch and drive from Tampa to the Cape on the spur of the moment. The night launches were always my favorite. The whole sky lights up just like daylight and it's an awesome sight and sound.

I urge you to try to see a shuttle launch. Waterfront areas on most of the east coast of the state are popular with people waiting for the launch and it is a party atmosphere. Everyone has a radio and nowadays, a portableTV or laptop, and you can hear the countdown and NASA chatter even if you are not close by in a VIP area. First, you see a huge billowing white cloud of water vapor. They use water to cool the launch pad before and when the burners fire and the massive, rising steam cloud is very impressive. Then, through the cloud, you see a hint of orange or red fire glowing and the top of the large fuel rocket start to rise. It rises so slowly that you can't beleive it is going to make it off the pad. While a shuttle ship itself only weighs 165,000 pounds, once attached to the boosters and the main fuel rocket with all three loaded with fuel, the whole kaboodle weighs an astounding 4.5 million pounds. It takes a lot of thrust and a few seconds to make that puppy start to move!

MSN video: Watch complete shuttle coverage

It takes a while before the sound travels to you. After all, you are probably at least 3 miles away. While you are holding your breath, thinking that the shuttle is moving too slowly and isn't going to rise, the rumbling reaches you,and is so loud, so intense, that it literally rattles your chest. The earth vibrates and everyone starts to cheer and whoop and applaud. It is such a rush, such a magnificent accomplishment that people cannot contain their excitement.

In about 40 seconds, the shuttle is but a glowing dot, speeding along at about 3000 KPH, the roar of the engines hardly discernable. If the weather is cooperating, you can see the booster rockets fall and if you've brought your binoculars, you can see the big fuel rocket split from the shuttle. All over the state, people pause to look up. On a good day with the right conditions, about half of the state of Florida can see a shuttle launch once it gains some altitude.

You can write NASA for tickets onto the causeway or for VIP passes but you can see all the action very well from anywhere on the west side of the Intracoastal near Cape Canaveral or Merrit Island. All along the Indian and Banana Rivers, people gather to watch and it's a festive atmosphere. Just remember to arrive early, Most people come the night before and stake out their spot. I can't decide who enjoys a launch more, the kids or the adults.

If you are planning a trip to Florida, check for scheduled launch dates and request a Causeway pass. It is something you will really enjoy and the pass is good for a specified period of time. Since launches can be delayed by many things, try to plan on being in the area for a few days. A visit to Kennedy Space Center is something you will always remember. The Canaveral National Seashore and Cocoa Beach are fun places to visit and you'll only be about 45 minutes from Orlando and all the major theme parks as well.

Yikes. I sound like Tourism Board. nevermind.


ChrisMoose said...

"Yikes. I sound like Tourism Board. nevermind. " You go right ahead and sound like the tourism board... made me wanna drive to Fla-la-land!!! ;-)

jackie said...

my father and i had tickets to a launch a few years ago--he drove down and camped out, and i flew down and met him. sadly, our launch was cancelled, but we still had a great time visiting the kennedy space center. as a person who has ALWAYS looked up and taugh many astronomy labs and classes while getting a physics degree, the sky and our place in it also holds a firm place in my heart. i am jealous of your launch-watching history.

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