Woodstock was for rock fans. But watching a space shuttle lift-off? That’s a Woodstock for rocket fans, and their families, too. Not everyone will be in the fortunate position to be able travel to Orlando, Florida during the coming year or two, but those who are might want to plan their time wisely. Time is a well-known precious commodity for all of us, of course, but when it comes to one the most illustrious chapters in American space exploration history, time is running out fast. The last of America’s space shuttle fleet, those aging yet beautiful American icons which go by the names of Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour, will be put out to pasture in 2010. That means that the opportunity to witness one of their spectacular lift-offs is counting down faster than most of us are aware of.
Just an hour east of Orlando begins what Floridians call the Space Coast, a region around the Kennedy Space Center where NASA frequently launches its rockets and shuttles into space and there, on the giant Merritt Island peninsula, is home to legendary Cape Canaveral, where millions of television viewers from around the world watched the great space race missions blast off in the sixties. Rockets still lift-off on a regular basis here, and Kennedy Space Center itself attracts over 1.5 million visitors a year. But you don’t always have to watch these spectacular events on television, you know.
The excitement felt by those who come to witness these publicly assessable launches live, particularly the excitement felt before the shuttle launches, is a feeling not unlike the one frenetic fans feel before the start of a rock concert. And this popular tradition has turned the areas immediately surrounding the Space Coast launch pads into giant open air viewing grounds which accommodate up to 200,000 visitors a year – and the interest of those who will wish to see one of the few remaining shuttle starts planned will only increase these numbers all the more.
And the trip to Ramp 39-A will definitely be worth it. The flat lands which surround the distant shuttle launch pad will once again be packed with tens of thousands waiting to watch the next shuttle lift-off, scheduled to take place on May 31. A full 5 miles removed from the shuttle launching area, this distance is deemed necessary for security reasons and due to the tremendous amount of noise the shuttle makes. The shuttle “stack” (orbiter and rockets) is in fact so loud at takeoff that beginning six seconds before ignition, hundreds of thousands of gallons of water are pumped onto the starting ramp in order to dampen, quite literally, the monstrous sound that the rocket engines will make, a thunderous noise that would otherwise kill anything within a 1000 foot radius and bust the eardrums of spectators miles away (window panes are said to rattle a full 12 miles when the shuttle begins to climb).
And with the vivid images of the Challenger’s explosion shortly after lift-off and Columbia’s eerie disintegration during re-entry burned into everyone’s mind, a palpable element of suspense will also always be present among the spectators during every shuttle launch. And how could it not be suspenseful with well over 4 million pounds of highly-explosive rocket fuel about to ignite in the immediate vicinity? But the spectators also feel more than suspense, there is a clear feeling of pride and wonder for those who take the opportunity to witness this spectacular show.
So will you be among those who will have seen the shuttle climb up beyond the trees in the distance (the shuttle itself is not visible from the viewing area)? Will you be one of those who was there when the “We have lift-off!” sounded and the muffled thunder rolls in, vague at first, then ever louder as the giant clouds of steam expand in all directions and the shuttle climbs straight as a candle, then veers slightly and continues on further up, up and away and ever faster? After one minute of flight the shuttle will be flying at a speed of over 1000 miles an hour, after 80 seconds it appears to be nothing other than a tiny ball of fire in the sky, after two minutes, the astronauts are already over 40 miles from earth (6 times higher than a passenger plane) and moving at Mach 5 or 3,700 miles per hour, leaving the Stratosphere behind them, the curvature of the earth now clearly visible to them should they dare to look.
All that trouble for a two minute show, you think, is it really worth it? But by the time you’ve thought that the shuttle is flying 17,000 miles an hour and has begun traveling around the earth every 90 minutes, 10 times faster than the shot of a pistol. And all you’ll get to see will be a mere two minutes of the ride? Is it really worth it? What a silly question. So which launch do you plan to watch?