Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Discovery Takes Flight

In case anyone was wondering, here's what it looks like when a Space Shuttle takes off about twenty miles or so from where you live (apologies for the unimpressive camera work):

I was a Yankee once, but my parents moved down here in the mid-Seventies. The one thing I've always liked about this area is its proximity to the Cape. When I was a kid, it fired my imagination to think that there were places on Earth where you could watch spacebound rockets from your backyard—and then I moved to one. I remember getting let out of high school to watch the first Shuttle launch back in 1981. I remember watching Columbia taking off to the east as I drove up I-95 to return to college in Atlanta after holiday break one cold morning in January in 1986. (I would be in Austin, Texas almost two decades later when Columbia broke up on re-entry, showering ghastly debris over the piney woods to the east.) Two weeks after glimpsing Columbia's triumphant rise out of my passenger-side window, I was checking in at my job as an a/v geek in one of the Emory University libraries when I heard that Challenger had blown up 73 seconds after launch on another cold morning. Hell, I remember walking home from school in the afternoon on days when the Army would be doing unannounced Pershing missile tests at the Cape, looking up and seeing the northern sky suddenly full of rocket trails. (The scenes right before the apocalypse in The Day After have a special resonance for people who grew up here, let me tell you.) I guess what I'm saying is that, even after all these years in which space shots have become commonplace, I still find profoundly moving the experience of standing in the backyard and watching something built by fellow members of my species soaring into space. Today was certainly no different.

But today's launch brought an added thrill. When Discovery vanished from sight over the Atlantic to the east, I stepped back inside to see the remaining TV coverage. To my amazement, this time, there was a video camera beaming back live images—from the upper part of the external fuel tank, looking toward the underside of the Shuttle. Beyond the Shuttle itself, you could see the curve of the Earth and the blackness of space. I and every other Earthling tuning in watched, live, as our home moved from the top to the bottom of the screen as Discovery rolled before jettisoning the tank; we watched, live, as the tank was cut loose and Discovery pitched up and vanished off the top of the screen. I've seen live images from space before, of course—hell, they used to have NASA TV on the air here, and you could turn on the TV at any odd hour, watch the Earth spinning by in real time below, and play Guess That Land Mass—but I can't recall ever watching a space launch live from a fuel tank's point of view before. Oh brave new world!

My congratulations to Discovery, its crew, and all the people whose hard work, skill, and creativity made wonders like today's launch possible—and best wishes for a safe return from space. If you're curious, you can keep up with Discovery here.

Amerika does Wernher von Braun proud...
I recall seeing launches from Vandenberg AFB when I was a kid in Southern California, and being filled with that same sense of awe. I hope you and I never lose that.
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