Launch Day #3

We were out at the launch pad yesterday, and the shuttle seemed huge. But from where we are today it looks impossibly tiny. We're three miles away; no one is allowed any closer.

We have about three hours until launch. I'm concerned about our visibility; there's a tree line at the horizon that blocks the lower half of the shuttle from view.

I meet a CBS News producer, and ask if we can have some space on the roof of their building; he's a fan of Nova, and he graciously agrees. My Dad worked for CBS for nearly thirty years, and I'm thinking if he were alive today, how cool he would think it is for me to be on the CBS rooftop - perhaps Walter Cronkite covered launches from here, I don't know...
I've sought out a few people we've filmed to watch the launch from our vantage point: Goddard engineer Ed Rezac, astrophysicist Mario Livio from the Space Telescope Science Institute, and tool engineer Matt Ashmore (who helped create the Mini Power Tool, a device that will be essential to the repairs planned for this flight).

These three are a good cross-section of the people who are making this mission happen, a mix of hands-on engineers who deal with the smallest details of physical hardware, and an astrophysicist who works with concepts of matter and distance and time on a scale I can barely comprehend.

Finally the moment arrives. It all proceeds in total silence; where we are, we don't hear the NASA commentary at all.

There's a flash of light, and huge clouds of smoke. Faster than I expect, the shuttle rises into the air and starts climbing. Wow - it's really fast. Strangely, all is still silent.

Then, many seconds later, the sound hits us; a low rumble like thunder, that quickly gets louder and louder. At its peak, the ground and entire building are shaking under our feet; it actually sounds like the air itself is being physically ripped or torn somehow.

But the really surprising part is the light. The flame from the engines is almost too bright to look at; it's like trying to focus on the sun. Somehow video doesn't convey the intensity of the light.

Then, in less than 90 seconds, it's gone. Matt Ashmore has binoculars, but I can't see anything. He tells us he can see the solid rocket boosters fly off; amazing, I can't even find the fire in the sky anymore.

Compared to TV, it's over much much faster. NASA's cameras can follow it almost to the edge of space, so watching on TV the launch is an 8 or 9 minute experience. Not so in person.

We film some more reactions from our characters, then retreat to the air conditioning and wait for a press briefing.

An hour later, the briefing tells us that the launch was good - they've seen no debris come off and hit the shuttle.

It will take them a day or so to catch up with Hubble, and then their work begins. I'm off to Houston, where the Goddard engineers will be when the spacewalks begin.
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