TBT: Viewing a Space Shuttle Launch

The beauty of the vapor trail of the shuttle launch was amplified by the sunset

The beauty of the vapor trail of the shuttle launch was amplified by the sunset

Note: this post has been edited (changes are in italics) and may be edited again as we get more great information about space shuttle launches

Friends, I took a longer absence than planned, and I apologize. Today, we’re throw-back Thursday-ing to talk about a space shuttle launch I saw in 2009.  How did that come up, you ask?  Let me explain…

Last night, I posted to Twitter about how the Northern Lights are visible further south than usual because of a solar storm. If you haven’t seen them, the northern lights are astonishingly beautiful – they almost look magical. I have great memories as a teenager of going on trips to northern Michigan with friends, and laying on a dock to watch the stars and northern lights.

I peeked outside a couple times last night to look for myself, but didn’t have any luck spotting them. Too bad for me! Guess I’ll have to make a trip up north sometime soon to get my northern lights fix.

Anyway, I digress.

@FLBeach_MG and I struck up conversation about the northern lights which then led to talking about what he does – space shuttle launches!! What a great job – really, really cool #STEM, with the side bonus of working in really, really nice places.  No northern lights, but usually no snow, either!

John shared some videos of space shuttle launches, which reminded me about the time I went to a space shuttle launch (more about that in a minute). Turns out, we were at the same launch: STS-119!  One of the last launches of the space shuttle Discovery.

John dug up this really cool video that shows not only what a bystander sees when they go to a launch, but also what you can hear over the radio, while showing a timed graph of the altitude, metrics, and clues about different phases of the launch process including a picture of the shuttle showing its orientation.

It’s a longer video, but very informative if you (like me) aren’t familiar with shuttle launches. There’s a lot that happens after 3…2…1… A couple minutes after liftoff, the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) come off. These provide the primary thrust in the first two minutes. They are super heavy (2.6 million pounds) but provide 13,800 kN of thrust – wow!

I was surprised to see on John’s video that there’s actually a descent about 5 and a half minutes after liftoff. A maximum height is reached, and then the goal changes to building speed. During this phase, the shuttle rolls over to what we think of as an upright position. (John asked astronaut Nicole Scott why, the shuttle was head-down before TRDS, and reports her response “We’re pilots.  We like the horizon”.  Makes sense, right?) It goes through a downhill slide of several miles in altitude drop, and then starts to gain altitude again to go into orbit. Less than 8 and a half minutes after liftoff, the main engines cut off, and the external tank is released (John and other space experts out there, please correct me if I’m mistaken, or over simplifying!).

Thanks to John, we can see that after only about 8minutes and 30 seconds, the shuttle accelerates from rest to a speed of more than 16,900 miles per hour, and an altitutude of 65.3 miles. Also, the space shuttle is nearly 800 miles away (down-range) from where it started in Cape Canaveral. That’s an average of about 94 miles – per minute!! Too bad we can’t all get around that quickly!

Here’s another narrated video John shared which shows up-close vantage points of the features pointed out in John’s video.  One thing that stood out to me is how much show there was when the SRBs come off, versus a relatively peaceful release of the external tank.  The external tank was a little more like hippos doing ballet in Fantasia (at least to me).  Also interesting to me, which is pointed out in the video, is that there is a several minute window after liftoff where the shuttle can be averted and return to Earth should anything go wrong.  I always thought there was no going back once you’re in the air, but if the shuttle can land on a runway on return, why not return to runway in the case of an aborted mission?  Again – makes sense! For much more detailed information, check out NASA’s website. They have tons of great resources available for readers at all experience levels.

Even though it’s not my area of expertise, I’ve always had a fascination with space shuttles. They’re just plain cool, right? Mr. SciGuy is an even bigger space lover than me, though. In 2009 before we went on a vacation to Florida, he brought up that he was bummed because we were just missing a shuttle launch, and he’d always wanted to see a shuttle launch.  And Discovery was nearing retirement, so opportunities to see it were dwindling.

Bummer, right?

Actually, not so much.

Turns out the launch faced delay after delay. First, the mission team delayed the launch to examine (and then replace) the hydrogen flow control valves that send hydrogen from the fuel tank to the engine. Then, the launch was delayed because of a hydrogen vent line was leaking. If I remember correctly, the launch was then rescheduled to March 15 based on the weather conditions– this was a day we were scheduled to be in Florida, with no other plans (except now to go see a space shuttle launch).

nasa1So, we packed some bottles of water and our camera and drove from Tampa (on the west coast of the state) to Cape Canaveral (on the east coast). The launch was in.cred.ible. It was more intense than I imagined. The general public can’t actually get anywhere near a shuttle launch. We went to a beach in Titusville, ~10 miles away from the ACTUAL launch. At first, I was a little bummed. 10 miles away – could you even see something from 10 miles away? Let me tell you. Yes.


The light of launch, from 10 miles away was staggering. The noise? Even more intense, but the sound travels slower than the light. For a second, you think, “wow, that’s really bright.  too bad we can’t be closer”. Then, there’s a rumbling like nothing else you’ve ever felt, and you think “oh – now I understand why we shouldn’t be any closer”. You can feel in completely to the core. It’s really cool.  And then things really get moving.

<<Side note: after posting, John sent this video too, which shows damage to brick walls at the launch site following launch.  First, seeing people and work trucks in the area gives a great sense of scale about just how big a space shuttle and it’s launch gear is.  The damage to the wall itself may not seem super impressive – just some missing bricks, right?  Until about 2 minutes into the video, when you can see just how far the brick debris was thrown from the launch site.  There’s a reason they keep the general public miles away!  Good thing we did kinematics in my last post, because projectile bricks would be another really fun physics problem.>>

Beautiful reflections in the vapor cloud

Beautiful reflections in the vapor cloud

It’s amazing to watch the shuttle slowly leave the ground, and head toward space. Then, too soon, it’s gone from sight, but there’s a veil of excitement still in the air. And, in the case of this launch, there was a killer reflection of the sunset off the vapor trail. Even the launch director called it the most beautiful launch he’d ever seen. I’m clearly an amateur photographer, but I’ve included some of my favorite pictures from the night in the post to try to convey the beauty.

edit: After originally posting this, John sent

Big questions lay in the sky - literally and figuratively

Big questions lay in the sky – literally and figuratively

Did you notice this one, where the vapor trail looks like question marks? It was windy, and the wind blew the vapor trail into a really cool pattern. I’ve used it in a number of presentations during Q&A segments. Turns out John and his team did some calculations based on the time of flight, and altitude at each time (see the video), and determined the big question marks in the sky were at about 16,000 ft altitude.  How many of you readers are thinking in your head that it would be amazing to spend a couple days in John’s shoes?

Have you been to a space shuttle or other launch experience?   What was it like for you? If not, how do you envision the future of space shuttles? Do you think they’ll still be a rare occasion worthy of a special trip, or do you think eventually they’ll be as routine as watching airplanes take off at a busy airport?

–the STEMinista

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