STS-132 Atlantis Launch

It’s all over and I’m in the 4-hour traffic jam leaving the causeway for Cocoa Beach. I’m overwhelmed and even a little melancholy – it all happened so fast did I miss anything?

I woke up at 5:00am. I was nervous about the traffic, so to be cautious, I left 90 minutes before the pick-up time in Titusville. I arrived with time to spare, so I went to a McDonald’s for pancakes. It wasn’t much, but it was all I could take. I was nervous and excited. I stopped and talked with some people who were working a 2-hour shift to keep people off private property with a view of the NASA facility. Miles of the roads through Titusville were lined with tape, parking areas and vendors setting up for the launch day. The radio was reporting they expected 300,000 people to view the launch – double the normal number.

I arrived at the pick-up point early, but there was already a very long line. It moved quickly and in 20 minutes I was on-board the bus.

Traffic to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) was slow. We were dropped off at 8:30am at the Visitors Center and had to be back in another line by 9:30 to board the same bus that would take us to the causeway viewing area. This strange drop-off and pick-up seemed to be so that the KSC Visitors Center security could check everyone before we were bussed to the causeway.

We arrived at the causeway around 11:30 – about 3 hours before launch. I got off the bus and all but ran to the rope to set up my chair. I was getting hungry so I chanced it that no one wold take my chair and ran to buy a hamburger, banana and a drink. I got my food before the 100+ foot line formed behind me.

The next 2.5 hours were spent baking in the Florida sunshine, testing out the lenses I rented from Lens Rentals Canada. When the count picked up at T-5 minutes, the crowd behind me stood up and everyone got very quiet. There were possibly as many as 17,000 people on the causeway and no one was talking.

At T-2 minutes, my heart was pounding – I was so excited.

T-1 minute – Oh My God, this is it.

T-11 seconds and I start the camera, trying to take some good photos without filling the buffer of the camera too soon. The buffer is only 14 full-size RAW photos, and I am shooting full-out at 8-frames per second. I wanted the better quality of the RAW, and the trade off was the small buffer.

Main Engine Start
Space Shuttle Main Engine Start. T-4 seconds

T-5 seconds and I can see the SSME – main engines starting. The view through the Canon 100-400mm L IS lens is amazing.

T-1, T-0 seconds and the shuttle disappears in the steam cloud from the sound suppression system. I paused shooting for a second to allow the buffer to clear while the shuttle was obscured.

When the vehicle climbed above the cloud, I held down the shutter button again for the most picturesque moments.

I was so engrossed in everything, I could not hear the NASA PA announcing the “Tower Clear” and “Roll Program” or the “Throttle Up” calls. I do remember hearing “Negative Return” – the point where the shuttle can no longer glide back to Kennedy for landing due to the height and velocity attained.

Shuttle clearing the tower
Space Shuttle clearing the tower. T+7 seconds

I was alternating between watching over the camera (watching and experiencing the event) and looking through the eye piece to take pictures. Once the shuttle was far enough away, it made more sense to focus on using the camera with the zoom lens as I could not see as much without binoculars.

It took a number of seconds for the sound to arrive from the launch. It started low, and not so loud. I guess that is because of the sound suppression system and because the thrust was focused at the ground. As the shuttle rose, the sound grew very loud with that crackling and popping noise you hear in good videos, but much stronger. The deep rumble of 7.4 million pounds of thrust lifting a 4.47 million pound (2000 ton) vehicle pounds the air – the forces at work are immense. The flames are so bright, even in the direct Florida sun – much brighter than I expected.

Solid Rocket Booster Separation. T+2 minutes 16 seconds

At T+2 minutes, I knew the Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) separation was moments away. I focused again (the lens was hunting a little for focus at this range), and was terrified I would miss it. Take some pictures, look up, take some pictures, look up. I could see the SRB separation with my own eyes, even though they were already at 150,000ft/46km. I could see them flame out and tumble through space; the vehicle was already above the standard definition for the edge of space. After that it was harder to focus the camera as the SSMEs do not produce smoke – only water vapour. All that was visible was the very bright dot of the vehicle accelerating away down-range.

After SRB separation, I was very disappointed that almost everyone around me started to pack up. It was only 2.5 minutes into an 8 minute climb to orbit, and I could still clearly see the bright light from the shuttle as it moved down-range. I could still see the light as the NASA PA announced Atlantis was already 290 km away. When else could one see a vehicle that is 290 km away and over 300,000 feet in altitude? Amazing!

I stayed in place trying to listen for the MECO (main engine cut-off) call, but the noise of everyone folding their chairs meant that I missed that important announcement – that the Atlantis climb was complete. I did hear the External Tank separation call right after MECO. At that point, they make only a minor adjustment to place Atlantis in orbit.

Today was so amazing, and overwhelming. And fleeting. All this preparation work to travel to see about 4 minutes of the climb to orbit.

There is no truly complete way to capture such a moment. Today is something I will treasure always.

The plume from the launch. T+6m17s

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