Seven years ago, the Space Shuttle was still flying, though not for much longer. China had yet to fly its multi-crew Shenzhou missions to the Tiangong orbital space laboratory, or land the Yutu “Jade Rabbit” rover on the moon, in each case becoming just the first nation after the US and USSR to achieve the feat. I wrote these impressions of the 14 May 2010 launch before I knew much about the Chinese program, and before I’d processed the black and white images included below.
Cape Canaveral, Florida
The glory days of space are long since over and probably never to return. If Yuri Gagarin, Alexei Leonov, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong were the Da Gama, Magellan, Columbus and Cook of their era, today’s astronauts sometimes seem closer to the crew of oil tankers or cargo ships. It just seems so routine, and almost everyone’s reaction is “what a waste of money”.
But space travel is still technically amazing, and getting a Shuttle into orbit is an incredible engineering achievement no matter how many times it’s done or how routine it seems.
The US human spaceflight program had been cancelled. There were only three launches left. So I wanted to see it and hear it before it was too late. Like Charlie with his precious golden ticket, I had my own magic little piece of paper, just about as difficult to get.
After the Grand Canyon and a 2 day drive back to San Francisco (with still more Madera burritos for Yon), we hopped a Southwest Airlines flight out to Florida. It was a beautiful clear day and we had amazing views across the Sierra Nevada and into the high desert beyond. Space is another 90 km above where you fly in an airliner, but I still always marvel at the view.
T minus 6 hours, and counting…
May 14 had dawned bright but windy. Liftoff was scheduled for 2:19:52pm. Statistically, there was a seventy per cent chance we’d hear the words “GO for launch”. Over on the launch pad, NASA was already loading fuel into the enormous brown fuel tank when we were just getting out of bed.
We got to the Kennedy Space Center around 11am. The mood in the Rocket Garden was “family picnic”. A pair of superannuated shuttle astronauts took the stage and answered questions from the crowd in between their “irreverant banter”. It was – predictably – very home-town and apple pie and God Bless Our Heroes. Most popular question – equally predictably – was from little kids. How do you go to the toilet in space? The truth, especially in the early days, was too horrifying for little kids to absorb, and the astronauts fudged it nicely.
We scoped out a good place to wait under a tree, and I also spotted a vantage point on the fence line where I would watch the actual launch.
T minus 2 hours 30 minutes, and counting…
At this point in the countdown, the astronauts were climbing into the shuttle. My anticipation must have been nothing compared to theirs – having trained for years for their mission. Still, I’d waited a long time for this moment too. I’d hyped it in my own mind so much that an anti-climax was almost inevitable. This was my biggest concern, even above a potential “scrub”.
But why should it be an anti-climax? It’s not like the Space Shuttle isn’t a monster of a machine. About the size of a small jetliner, the winged shuttle is strapped to a giant brown fuel tank and two white rocket boosters. The whole package weighs over 2,000 tonnes and it can put 24 tonnes into earth orbit. Sputnik, the first satellite, weighed a mere 83kg and was considered a technical triumph in 1957. And how’s this for fuel consumption? The Shuttle’s 3 main engines alone burn through 1.9 million litres of fuel in 8 minutes and thirty seconds. That doesn’t include the two booster rockets. Together, it’s enough to take the Shuttle from a standing start on the ground in Florida to 28,000 km/h (Mach 23) and at least 100km above Earth in less than nine minutes.
T minus 20 minutes and counting…
Everyone’s anticipation was building with less than half an hour to go. We knew the astronauts were in the shuttle. The ground crew had cleared the pad. We all hoped – especially those like me who’d come a long way and had only this one chance to see it – that nothing would cause a “hold” or, worse, a “scrub”.
Now I ran through my own pre-launch checklist. I had three cameras to manage, and I wanted to actually watch the launch too, without focusing on photography. So I set up each camera to be ready – one with colour, two with black and white; different lenses for different phases. The big 500mm lens (with the red sticker in the picture below) had come full circle: I bought it in 1996 from a woman who’d bought it just to photograph a launch. Here it was at Kennedy again, 14 years later. In my mind I ran through the various settings: film loaded (check); power on (check); lens caps off (check); lenses focused to infinity (check); exposure set (check). I remembered my phases: first, the “contingency shot” – a wide-angle, just to get something; second, a few frames of colour with a medium lens; third, close-ups with the big lens that also doubled as binoculars, so I could see the shuttle more clearly.
T minus 9 minutes and holding…
This is the moment I really love. The Flight Director goes around the control room for the Launch Readiness Poll – the famous “Go/No-Go” check. It’s exciting – just watch Apollo 13!
I did my own quick check: SLR one? GO. SLR two? GO. Rangefinder? GO. The astronauts – we hoped – were ready. And so was I – “Richy is GO for launch!”
T minus 31 seconds…
“Ground Launch Sequencer GO for automatic launch sequence”
The launch sequence begins automatically 31 seconds before lift-off. Too much is happening too fast for humans to manage it so computers issue all the commands and monitor all the systems. With ten seconds to go, I could only vaguely hear the crowd calling out the countdown. We couldn’t see the launch pad from our position, but we knew the shuttle would come into sight about ten seconds after liftoff.
Suddenly, small but extremely bright, and totally silent, Atlantis burst above the treeline and headed skywards. Straight up and getting faster. The sound hadn’t yet traveled the several miles from the launch pad, and when it did come, it was diluted by the wind and the shuttle was already very high in the sky.
Through my big lens I could see it quite clearly bursting through the cloud, performing the “roll program” by twisting over upside down so it could aim at the right point in the sky.
It seemed small but powerful. I didn’t think “go Atlantis”, I tuned out the cheering of the crowd, and I just watched it climb higher, and get smaller and smaller until only minutes later it was nothing but a tiny bright pinprick in the sky.
A faint crackling sound reached my ears, much softer than I’d expected, and then even through my large lens I couldn’t see anything. The whole show was over in about four minutes. By the time we walked back to the tree where our stuff was, the shuttle was in low Earth orbit, over Europe. Florida to France in less than ten minutes. Not bad.
Was it all I expected to be? No. Not nearly as loud as I’d thought, and somehow, probably because it was over so fast, I almost didn’t have time to process it in my mind.
But I am very glad to have seen such a thing. Because the Americans are the only space power self-confident enough to let ordinary people from anywhere around the world watch a launch, I knew this was my last chance in potentially a very long time. And I won’t quickly forget the sight of that tiny pin-prick of light racing downrange at almost 20 times the speed of sound, so fast and far away that even my 500mm lens could only resolve the three engines as a single dot. It might be routine; it might be yesterday’s technology, it might be a waste of money. But it’s still awesome.
More than a year later, I developed the black and white photographs. Looking at this one, I realised it captured that same pinpoint of light I’d seen through the big lens. Looking around on the internet for other images of STS-132’s launch, I found one very similar, so similar in fact that I realised the photographer must have been standing within a few meters of me. She had described her image as “booster separation”. Excited, I went back to my negative with a loupe. Sure enough, I noticed that I had also captured the moment of booster separation, when the two white solid fuel boosters run out, and are jettisoned from the “stack”. They continue to fly upwards, but away from the Shuttle (to avoid a collision) and then, when they’re completely expired, they parachute back to the surface for refurbishing and re-use.
In a close crop, you can see the bright lights of the three main engines on the Shuttle itself, and then above, two fainter points of light streaming smoke – the boosters separating.
The boosters separate when the Shuttle is about 45km above the earth – that’s 145,000 feet or almost five times as high as a commercial airliner flies. Separation occurs 26km “downrange” (the distance along the ground from the launch pad). This means the Shuttle was 51.5km away from my camera when I took this image – handheld!