How cool is it that the Space Shuttle went up today, huh? Quite a great present for America's 230th birthday.
One of my favorite descriptions of the take off procedures for the shuttle comes from the essay COURAGE written by the excellent author and pilot Bill Whittle over at Eject!Eject!Eject!. Here is the excerpt, and if you have the time, definitely read the whole essay, it will be worth your time-
Of course, the risks we private pilots face pales in comparison to our military fliers, and is absolutely nothing compared to that met eye-to-eye by men and women like Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Dave Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Mike Anderson, and Ilan Ramon; nor does it require the courage and skill of Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Ron McNair, El Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis or Judy Resnik. These are the last crews of Columbia, and Challenger before her, buried with their ships in the skies over Florida and Texas. But many, many others have taken that walk in those spacesuits, smiling and waving as they pass the cameras on their way to their seats atop 2 million pounds of explosives, and they took exactly the same risks and bore them with the same courage. It is fitting that we remember the names of those lost with their ships, but not fitting at all that most of us cannot name a single living crewmember, some of whom have taken that walk four or five times.
Story Musgrave was one of those people. He described the Space Shuttle as "a beautiful butterfly that's bolted to a bullet."
Here’s what he meant:
Your chairs are facing the sky as you crawl into the Orbiter. You can barely move anyway in your orange pressure suits – thank god for the technicians. They literally ratchet the five-point harness across your chest and legs. On a full flight, it’s four on the flight deck: Pilot and Mission Commander on the controls up front. Two behind him, three on the deck below.
You sit for hours like this – minimum of three hours or so, often longer. There is a lot to think about, and I have no doubt that since Challenger rose and then fell on that cold January morning not one of them has been able to avoid seeing in their mind’s eye that horrible forked smoke trail and raining, smoldering debris. No one talks about this. No one has to. There’s a lot of smiling and nodding, but the chatter is kept to a minimum since the intercom is dominated by call-outs from launch control to the crew, most often the Mission Commander and Pilot.
There’s a lot of built-in holds, chances to catch up and work minor, last minute problems. At the T-21 minute hold, the Flight Director polls the Launch Control Team to confirm we are go for launch. This is a solemn moment. It is, in essence, the passing of a cup of responsibility. Everybody takes a sip. It’s a little less dramatic than in the Apollo days (Telemetry? GO! Cap COM? GO! Booster? GO FLIGHT!), but it’s still where we sign the check.
They pick up the countdown. There’s another built-in hold at T-9 minutes. Any one of these can, and very often does, result in catching one or more of the one million components falling out of nominal status. That’s either more delay strapped into your chair, or a trip home for the night, or the week, or the month.
T minus 31 seconds -- OBS takes over, with auto-sequence start at T-28. Software is running the countdown from this point forward, but anyone at any console can stop the launch if they are not happy.
Computers are checking each system twenty-five times a second. The crew hears everything. Pilot and Mission Commander are busy as hell, but the other five are essentially passengers, and now they are scared. Now they are calling on all of their courage, reasoning with themselves. Smiling at each other. That helps a lot. That and The Nod. The Nod is untranslatable. It means, very roughly, that I know what you went through to sit here with me, and you know the same about me. It’s not something you and I can do. This is something reserved for the very best people we have as a species. That inner voice, the one we cultivate and nurture through untold hours of training and simulation, whispers to us, pushing out the fear: Those controllers are the best there are. The engineers too. The technicians. All of them. We don’t know if they can keep us safe but we know they’ve done their best, and that’s as good as it gets.
Ten, nine, eight…
Okay, head back. Here we go. On the flight deck, some orange gantry out the left window – everything else is blue sky. A butterfly bolted to a bullet.
At T-6 seconds, fire-hoses of fuel and liquid oxygen begin to flow to the three main engines at the back of the Shuttle. They only give us about a quarter of the thrust we’ll need to get off the pad. But they’re on fire now, pushing the Orbiter forward, giving the crew the sickening feeling that the ship is falling over. The vanes constrict and focus the thrust – we’re going to need it all now. Everything she’s got.
Come on, baby. Come on.
The entire shuttle assembly rocks back into place now, and even during these last five seconds, computers can catch a stray reading and shut it all down…
Three, two, one…
SRB ignition. The two flanking Solid Rocket Boosters ignite, pitching more than a million pounds more thrust onto the orange External Tank, the bullet that the butterfly rides into orbit.
And now you’re headed for space, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
The SRB’s kick in, and that is what it is, a hammer to the back. You were scared before; you’re terrified now. The SRB’s are horrible, they’re pigs, they scrape and hiss and rattle and they feel like they will shake that ship to pieces. Look at the cockpit cameras during launch, and you’ll see the crew battered like they’re taking speed bumps at two hundred miles an hour. Everyone hates and fears the SRB’s; you’ll never relax while they’re burning.
15 seconds in and you’re clear of the tower. The Shuttle rolls 90 degrees left, fast. You’re not only on your back now, you’re tipping over upside-down and it’s getting worse as you angle out over the Atlantic.
A few miles away stand the smartest men and women the human race has ever produced, and they are watching over you like a hawk. There’s just so goddam little they can do for you now. They’ve already done everything they can and they’re as much a passenger as you are.
You are probably too scared to think about it, and it is CERTAINLY too loud to hear, but further away, thousands and thousands more watched the glare as the SRB’s lit. The Shuttle rolls off the pad in complete silence at that distance. It’s surreal. There’s nothing to compare it to. People are usually kind of quiet.
Then the sound hits you: you feel it in your chest more than hear it, the sound of millions of pieces of thick canvas being torn all at once. And then a funny thing happens, because you’re surrounded by people but suddenly you’re all alone out there – sunburn forgotten, mosquitoes a memory from a past life. You’re ten or fifteen or twenty miles away, but it’s just you and the white butterfly now, that’s all there is. You’re crying and you don’t know it, you're screaming but you can’t hear it, you’re jumping up and down, and it’s every time a Gator wide receiver ever beat a Florida State defensive end and he’s just pulling away and ain’t nothin’ gonna stop him now – he’s going all the way.
Go, baby! Go! GO! Go you son of a bitch! Yeah, they say she burns liquid hydrogen and LOX, but that’s just camouflage. It’s pure love that keeps that ship in the sky.
And she is going. She’s going like a bat out of hell. And every traffic jam and dental appointment and blind date and income tax form is suddenly worth it to be able to see this with your own eyes, to live through a time like this…It’s a pillar of fire and a pillar of smoke, but it’s not God coming down to speak to us, it’s us going up to have a word with Him. Good GOD look at her go!
40 seconds. The mains throttle back. Nothing stops the goddam solids: they keep roaring and hissing and knocking loose your fillings if you're dumb enough or human enough to keep your teeth clenched. We’re at Max Q, and the Shuttle is experiencing the highest aerodynamic loads it can bear. We keep getting faster, but the air starts to thin. This is as hard as the air can push back, and if we do it at full power we’ll be blown to pieces.
Fifty years ago it took all the Right Stuff we had in the box to push a tiny orange glider level through the sound barrier. Now we do it in less than a minute, straight up, from a standing start, with a spacecraft the size of a ten story building weighing a few million pounds. Ka-BOOOM! Mach 1, baby, and you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!
A little more than a minute and most of the atmosphere is behind us. Main engines back up to 104%
"Challenger GO at throttle-up…"
That’s as far as Challenger got that cold January morning. 73 seconds. End of story.
“Roger Columbia, we copy you go at throttle-up”
I know how they must have felt at 2:02 – a kick and a pop, and all of a sudden, the ride turns to pure velvet as the SRB’s fall away. I know one of them must have looked at another and smiled. We’re safe now.
Well, safer. Now a complete engine failure could result in a return glide to Kennedy. Forget all that nonsense about parachutes and escape poles. At mach 5 and climbing the air is as hard as concrete.
2:32 – we’ve been in the air for two and a half minutes, and we are high and fast enough now to glide to Africa.
4:20 – Two engine Abort to Orbit – if we lose a main engine now, the other two will get us to orbit. We can sort things out up there.
7:00 – One engine ATO. Even better. We’re gonna make it.
7 minutes, 45 seconds. MECO. Main Engine Cut Off. Welcome to by-God outer space! Everything is strapped down except your arms. They float in front of you like they do at the top of a roller coaster. Only this one is going to last for two weeks. You’re weightless.
Hope you are all enjoying your Fourth!!