A friend of mine was recently strapped to a seat inside a vehicle that rapidly accelerated him to 17,500 mph. He is now traveling in circles around the planet attached to the International Space Station (ISS). He will be there in space for sixteen days installing the first part of the Japanese science research module, Kibo, and the Canadian dual robotic arm module, Dextre. It's either the second or third longest of all the space shuttle missions. It is his first shuttle mission. Gregory H. Johnson is the pilot and he also operates the shuttle's own robotic arm.
I think the most interesting fact about orbiting the Earth is that the astronauts are not experiencing zero gravity as is commonly thought. They are in fact experiencing a great deal of gravity. They are simply experiencing it in a way the Earthbound never do. The space shuttle (along with the ISS and all other orbiting objects) is constantly falling to Earth. It is only their speed that keeps them from hitting the planet. They are moving so fast that as they fall the Earth's surface is forever curving away from them. So, really what they are experiencing is not zero gravity... but falling. And falling is quite gravity dependent.
I went to Florida, along with my girlfriend and about 130 of Greg's friends and family, to see him lift off. It was a night launch. To be more specific it was an early morning launch; 2:28 a.m., to be exact. The launch was originally scheduled for an afternoon in February but was delayed a month due to a technical issue with the shuttle mission before theirs, which was also delayed a month. I believe they chose the wee hours of March 11 because it was the next opportunity to go, but I don't really know. I know there are other shuttle missions waiting to go after his and the cost of schedule delays must be enormous. The launch window for Greg's shuttle was a mere 10 minutes. If there was a problem during countdown that took more than 1o minutes to solve, the launch would have to be scrubbed. It had already been delayed a month. It had to go tonight.
We arrived at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center for the launch at 10 p.m. and stood in a long line for NASA busses that took about 5,000 of us to the NASA causeway, 6.7 miles across the water from launch pad 39A. The weather was good for launch, though a bit chilly by Florida standards. The sky was partly cloudy and the temperature was about 55. The launch pad and orbiter were lit up with huge arc lights like a movie premier. As we approached the viewing area we could see the bright white light beams stretching up into space as if showing the way. Everyone for many miles around was focused on this one bright spot.
Sitting on our blanket on the NASA causeway Endeavor was impossible to miss. We were looking directly at the top side of the shuttle as it waited to go. It looked fantastic reflected in the water. It seemed like we waited forever in the dark in anticipation and then all of a sudden the countdown was under a minute. Voices from the countdown echoed from unseen speakers and were very difficult to understand from where we sat. It was difficult, but not so difficult that we couldn't recognize Greg's voice reading off checklist items. It was at that point that it all became very very real.
Hearing his voice brought a mix of emotions. Primarily fear and excitement. This was a voice from my childhood as well as my adulthood. We went through junior high and high school together and have seen each other periodically since then, as recently as a year and a half ago, and I will see him again in August. And here he was reading off cryptic checklist phrases from atop the space shuttle. Here was my friend about to live out his lifelong dream... and he could die in a minute. Or two days. Or sixteen days. He is not yet out of danger.
Eight... Seven... Six "Main engine start"... Five... Four... Three... Two... One...
"Liftoff of the shuttle Endeavor!"
It silently lit up all of south Florida in a bright, yellowy light. The exhaust cloud enveloped the orbiter, completely obscuring it. For what seemed like an eternity we waited in that silence for Greg to emerge from the smoke. Then ever so slowly the shuttle's nose pierced through and Endeavor rose out of the fire. It was majestic and exhilarating. It lit up the ground, the water and the clouds above. As it accelerated skyward the sound arrived. A low, loud, popping, crackling rumble. It was simply powerful. About ten seconds into the launch the shuttle began its roll to the right and then it went into the clouds. We could not see, and did not know, that the clouds had closed in before the launch. The sky dimmed and the shuttle was gone from sight. All we had left was the sound of the engines.
Everyone waited, hoping maybe there was a break in the clouds for the shuttle to show itself again. But, it was not to be. The show was over and though it had been a great success, it was disappointingly short lived. There was a pervasive feeling that we had been cheated a little. But, the cheated feeling quickly gave way to the grateful. Applause and whistles began to cut through the now waning engine noise. We humans had done it again.
After the applause died there were only the low sounds of tired people collecting blankets, folding lawn chairs and bus engines starting up. I turned to one of my childhood friends - she and her husband had been seated on the blanket next to us - and the weight of it all was suddenly too heavy for us. We shared a tearful hug and then laughed. It had been so crazy and so scary. It was surreal. We all rode the quiet bus back the visitors center and said our goodbyes there. What a night.
You go, Greg. See you in August, my friend...