Published on February 21st, 2014 | by Adam Slater
3 emotions you’ll feel during a space shuttle launch
Read time: a bit over 3 minutes
When things go wrong in space travel, it’s all ‘Houston, we have a problem’. But when things go right, The Kennedy Space Centre in Titusville, Florida is the best seat in the house. But you have to buy tickets or be a scientist to get in there, so I settled for the beach across the road instead.
Emotion one: the anxiety
If you’re lucky enough to be in Florida during a space shuttle launch, there’s a very special ritual to be observed. It essentially involves packing your giant truck/SUV with beer, driving to the beach, parking it in the sunshine, and having a BBQ. Actually, the day feels a bit like a New Years Eve countdown, except with the added anxiety that comes from knowing that the celebrations could be cut short by fiery astronaut deaths.
Even though Gravity taught us that all spacecraft handle like a Toyota Yaris, and that our greatest fear isn’t space itself, but the idea of being alone (or Russians…I can’t remember which), it was also pretty good at showing space for what it is – a horror movie waiting to happen.
It’s not just the sheer danger involved with space launches that makes the butterflies in your stomach throw up. The fact that it only takes a tiny breeze to delay the mission and screw up everything means that if you’ve built a holiday around seeing one of these bad-boys take to the sky, it could be months before for the next chance appears.
To help make sense of all the drama, locals tune their portable and car radios to a special launch day stream that provides a direct link to mission control. Throughout the day, NASA’s endless checks, balances and weather reports are broadcast live across the beach. It’s sometimes hard to decipher, but when the operator breaks his techno-babble to note that ‘the wind is picking up’ three minutes before launch, it doesn’t take a PHD in astrophysics to know that things are looking shaky.
Emotion two: the love
When it comes to launching a space shuttle, the whole operation, the years of planning, training and preparing, comes down to a two-minute launch window. In that window, there can be no breeze, no rain and not even a stray bird. So when crunch time rolls around, and you know how close you are to seeing something truly special, you feel every second.
On this particular day, it took until five seconds before the launch window closed for mission control to finally announce: ‘We are go for launch’ (in the most Apollo 13 voice imaginable). Pure happiness. At that moment, you can’t help but get a shiver down your spine. And when the booster rockets fire, the crowd starts to cheer, the rocket slowly begins to rise off the launch pad and the announcer says: “Discovery makes one last reach for the stars” there’s barely a dry eye.
You might recognize the feeling if you’ve ever been to the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China or the Empire State Building. It’s a very human feeling of pride that comes from realising that ‘we did this’. Not individually of course, (by this time, I was too drunk to be operating a spacecraft), but as a collective.
Then, just as you begin to reach a greater understanding of your fellow man, a giant shockwave comes rippling across the water and damn near knocks you over. To be clear, it’s not a symbolic shockwave of solidarity. It comes from either the giant explosion in front of you or possibly because one of the boosters has just broken the speed of sound
Emotion three: the sadness
With all the existential high-fiving complete, what strikes you next is the sheer amount of energy required to lift a three-ton shuttle that far into the stratosphere. It’s like watching the world’s most explosive elevator, heading straight up until it’s completely out of sight.
The moment that this tiny speck of humanity finally disappears into the blue sky is also quite profound, but the combination of beer you have consumed and the neck-ache that comes with looking directly up at the sky for the best part of half an hour will most likely just make you feel dizzy.
Then, it’s all over. Everyone heads back to their cars, with stars in their eyes, eagerly awaiting Discovery’s next mission. Except then you realise this was to be her last launch. And you’ll probably never get to see another shuttle, never mind ride in one. Then you remember you’re not good enough at maths to be an astronaut, and that you don’t have enough money to afford Virgin Galactic.
You’re stuck here. On earth. For good.
…life isn’t fair.