Shuttle launch: The thrill of the ascent

Shuttle (Nasa) The raw power of shuttle on lift-off

Every grass verge and every beach here on the Space Coast will be packed with spectators on Friday.

Estimates suggest half a million to three-quarters of a million people will try to get close to the Kennedy Space Center to watch the final launch of a shuttle.

Atlantis is due to thunder off the pad at 1126 local time, engineering gremlins and Florida's fickle weather permitting.

It's not just a piece of history everyone wants to witness; it's the desire also to experience the thrill of the ascent.

I've been fortunate to see a few shuttle launches, and there really is nothing to compare with the sight, sound and the feeling of being up-close to 2,000 tonnes of machine as it gets up off the Earth.

The brilliance of the light is the first thing that strikes you, followed by a deafening popping sound.

And then you feel it; your whole body vibrates… along with all the vehicles in the Kennedy's viewing area car park which immediately start hooting because their alarms have sensed a disturbance.

That's what it's like from the outside; I can only imagine what it must be like sitting inside a shuttle.

Speak to any astronaut and they'll assure you that their first concern is focussing on the job, or the instruments… but they'll also admit to the excitement.

"You do try to take a quick look out the window and watch the state of Florida and see the United States disappear, and it is an absolutely magical feeling," says Chris Ferguson, who will command Atlantis on its final mission.

Astronaut Michael Foale: "There's an incredible thump in your back"

The space shuttle's thrust at lift off comes from those two white solid rocket boosters and the vehicle's three main engines. Together they provide about 34 meganewtons (7.8 million pounds). The orbiter accelerates from zero to a speed of almost 28,000 km per hour (18,000 miles per hour) in eight and a half minutes. The final speed achieved is equivalent to nine times that of the average rifle bullet.

No wonder Rex Walheim, a mission specialist on Atlantis, says he's "a window seat kind of guy, even to this day I love when I go on an airplane - I gotta have a window seat. The absolute window seat is on the space shuttle and it really is an amazing."

The main engines are the first things to light, and the astronauts talk about the "twang" that occurs at that moment.

"Because the main engines are not right on the centre of gravity, the whole stack twangs; it moves," says Steven Lindsey, the commander on Discovery's final flight earlier this year.

"The engineers have it timed exactly so that when the stack twangs back to the centre, the solid rocket boosters light. And when they light - those are three million pounds of thrust each - it kicks you back into your seat with 2.6 to 2.7Gs, and you are gone."

Shuttle (Nasa) The first two minutes are a little rough

The first two minutes of the flight are the hardest on the astronauts as the shuttle lifts up, rolls on to its back and heads out over the Atlantic for its chase to the International Space Station.

"There's a rapid shaking left and right," recalls UK-born astronaut Michael Foale. "As this roar develops, you realise 'I can't read the instruments; I thought I was meant to do a job here'!

"Those two minutes while the boosters are firing - you also hear a noise outside that's extraordinary. It's a kind of groaning, roaring, moaning noise as the winds picks up outside the shuttle," he tells me.

Release comes when the solids get to the end of their burn and are jettisoned.

"On the video it looks so graceful as they depart the vehicle," says Walheim, "but when you are inside, it is a little bit like a train wreck. It bangs as explosive bolts go off, and the thrusters that push those rockets away from you - they have flames and orange that goes around your windows and sometimes you get some exhaust on the windshield, and you just go 'wow!'".

Foale describes this moment as when "the gorilla gets off your chest", and things go quiet. But the flight is barely a quarter done.

"It's another six and a half minutes up to orbit. We pitch over and actually descend a little to accelerate more," says Lindsey. "Then, as we start using up more and more of the hydrogen and oxygen propellant in the external tank, the vehicle gets lighter and lighter and we start accelerating faster and faster.

"We accelerate all the way up to 3Gs about a minute prior to Main Engine Cut-Off."

Just over 350 different individuals have flown on the shuttle in its 30-year history. That's not many people - a select group who've experienced one of the greatest rides ever devised.

Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    7th July 2011 - 10:54
    I did a quick calc and the first time i got 1.7s which in no way can be correct but i did it again using what dangnabbit said about reaching 200mph over its own length which would mean an acceleration of approx. 71.246m/s^2 so 0-60 in 0.376s.
    No way... 71.246m/s^2 is ~7.2g, max accel of STS is ~3g at later stage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Excellent description, which is very enlightening to read and learn !
    Thank you so much BBC !

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Allen T2

    I have no problem with the Voyager space craft having the American flag on them. The US paid for them and deserve recognition. I am interested in their discoveries which enrich all mankind. Space exploration doesn't have to be nationalistic. Suggest you look at Carl Sagan's pale blue dot to get a different perspective on NASA. New horizons is on the way to Pluto for science not politics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    great! once we succeed in this mission people by 2050 will travel between planets in their cars which will fly like Atlantis, that is real development of all planets as all ecological problems are tackled positively for the benefit of all living beings on all planets, that is the need of the hour,which USA knows and Americans will achieve by exploration in space. great independence, man ever seen!

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Enif: "What are Meganewtons?" Incomprehensible? You could of course try Googling it and get the answer your were looking for. It ain't rocket science!

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    What is a meganewton? a big fig bar or what? We all understand what pounds are, but meganewtons? It only shows how ridiculous it is to impose on us this incomprehensible metric system when we already had a system that worked very well for centuries.

    New Jersey , USA

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Sad day, though inevitable since the loss of Columbia .
    Hope NASA can get on with facilitating the orbital ops to SpaceX and get their own heavy lifter.
    The large job losses on the Space Coast is saddening but it does show the problem with STS, the sheer numbers of people, time, cost of each launch.
    Has to be a better, safer, more sustainable way of getting cargo and people to low Earth orbit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Wish I could have seen the launch today, my intention had been to see the last but one, when that got pushed way back it would clash with something closer to home that could not be avoided.
    That was always the issue, go 4000 miles, launch scrubbed, not have the time to stay and wait.
    I've fond memories of seeing Enterprise on it's 747 when it visited the UK in 1983 - en route to the Paris Airshow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Allen, no ISS started with Russian modules (and their very long experience in space stations from the 70's to the 90's).
    No one, outside of you it seems, has this idea about 'Europeans' wanting some kind of ownership of space.
    I agree that what NASA does next is a US issue, the issue being that there is NO great wish to do large manned programs, or the money either. From the lawmakers and public.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    I am old enough to just about remember Gemini, was totally hooked by Apollo. Skylab was an embarassment. Apollo-Soyuz gave us an indication that the cold war might just end one day. The shuttle made space travel "ordinary" something that anybody could do until Challenger reminded us otherwise.

    Humans need to explore - its the basic "need" that took us from Africa all around the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    I saw a shuttle launch in the 80's from about 7 miles away. Amazing! It climbed up in silence for a while as it took about 35 seconds for the sound to travel to where we were. When that arrived, the ground felt like it was shaking!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    As far as I can ascertain, the shuttle takes about 6.5 seconds from launch to clear the tower which equates to a clear the tower speed of about 70mph. You can check this by using a stopwatch whilst watching a launch video. But bear in mind that the launch weight is in excess of 2000 tonnes!

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    10. dangnabbit

    And the reason for everything being in kilometres is because the BBC has forgotten that is it the BRITISH Broadcasting Corporation
    No, the reason everything is metric, is because metric is international. NASA works in metric as do all scientists and engineers.

    The whole of the scientific community uses the SI standard of Kilograms, Meters and Seconds as the base units.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    tHE RE

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    space travel amazes me. for some quite amazing space footage check out 'The Trip - Season 1 episode 2' on Youtube. its quite mindblowing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    7th July 2011 - 12:14

    Why are we so desperate to go to Mars, when Venus is so much closer!


    Because the surface temperature is 460C and the pressure is 93 bar.

    None of the probes sent lasted more than a few minutes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Saddened that it seems the human race has turned out not to be capable of building, developing, evolving and maintaining a real spaceship and that we're reverting to the "spam in a can" crew capsule concept of the 1950s.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    SONICBOOMER wrote:

    "The ISS is a great partnership to start that effort moving forward to put people on Mars and explore the outer planets and to start extending humanity from our foothold here on Earth"

    The ISS was assembled by America and America wasted decades on something that has shown no benefits to it. America can also get to Mars on its own and would have done so sooner without the ISS.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    SONICBOOMER wrote:

    "Allen T2, wanna bet that it will be Americans, only them, going to Mars?"

    I don't care who else makes it there. Good for them if they do.

    "Your comments, xenophobia included, that pollute these boards, contribute nothing and mean even less."

    Is it "xenophobic" when Europhiles and Euro organizations express and promote ownership and control of their space programs?

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Even whilst developing the Saturn booster von Braun was aware, along with others in the know, of the severe limitations of chemical rockets. Attempting to get to Mars with said technology is sad and pathetic. Atomic impulse technology always was and always will be the only viable alternative. A stronger lobby for the nuclear rocket (a ridiculous technology in hindsight) killed it in its infancy.


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