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The Launch of Columbia!

By Jeffrey Williams

The launch of the shuttle Columbia was one of the most exciting moments of my life. I was lucky to be invited to the launch by Payload Specialist James Pawelczyk. In this account I want to share what it was like to attend one of the spectacular events in the world: the launch of the space shuttle!

After arriving at the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday April 16, we went to a briefing on the shuttle countdown. There we were briefed by David Dickinson on the status of the launch countdown. He told us that the weather was looking great with a 100% chance of launching the next day. Following the briefing we were given a special tour of the Kennedy Space center. Along the way to the NASA facilities we got to see many alligators in the ditches by the roadway. Our tour guide also pointed out a large eagles nest in which we could see a couple of eagles. Many people don't know but the space center is in the middle of a National Wildlife Refuge.

The first site on our tour was the Vehicle Assembly Building(VAB) where the space shuttle is assembled. The VAB is 525 feet tall, tall enough to fit the Statue of Liberty and have more than 100 feet of clearance! Near the VAB is the crawler transporter that transports the whole space shuttle out to the launch pad. The trip to the launch pad takes between 5 and 8 hours depending on which of the two launch pads is used. The maximum speed of the crawler is 1 mile per hour when carrying the shuttle.

The next site we visited was the Shuttle Landing Facility where the shuttle lands after the journey into space. The runway is as wide as a football field is long! We also got to see the T-38 jets that the astronauts use for travel and the Shuttle Training Aircraft(STA). The STA is used by the astronauts to practice landing the shuttle.

The next stop was a trip out to the Launch Pad 39 B where Columbia was waiting for launch. The entrance to the pad was closed by a fence with a sign that said, "Go Columbia!" The shuttle was surrounded by the Rotating Service Structure(RSS) at the time of our visit, so we could not see the shuttle orbiter. Still it was an amazing site to see the space shuttle vehicle sitting on the launch pad waiting to go. All around the pad news photographers had set up their cameras to record the launch. These cameras were secured into the ground so the forces of launch would not knock them over. At the time of our visit, we got to see a group of vans marked "Payloads" go up to the pad to install some of the experiments for the flight. Our tour guides left us off of the buses so that we could get some good photographs of the shuttle on the pad.

After view the shuttle at Pad B, our tour took us to over to Pad A. Pad A was empty at the time so we were able to get a good view of the launch pad itself. The tour took us right up to the flame trench in which the exhausts of the launch enters.

Later that same day my family and I were invited to a prelaunch reception in the new Saturn Five Visitor Center. At the reception we got to meet friends and families of the crew and some of the mission scientists. We also were able to view the exhibits about the early years of the space program and our voyages to the moon. Following the reception we boarded the buses for a very special treat - getting to view the shuttle with the spotlights up on the shuttle. Our tour guide told us we were very lucky because NASA does not allow friends and family out to the pad the night before the launch that often. As we reached the pad, the shuttle almost seemed unreal. Someone on the bus said it looked like this event was staged by Disney. It was a beautiful site! (Unfortunately, my photographs of the shuttle did not turn out good.)

After the one day delay in launch, we went out to our viewing site to wait for the launch. Our viewing site was at the VIP viewing site next to the Saturn Five Visitor Center. This site is only 3 miles from the launch pad and only NASA guests and reporters are allowed to be there. The regular public are not allowed any closer than about 7-10 miles. Once we got there, we waited for the launch to take place. One of the special guests we were able to meet at the VIP site was former astronaut Eugene Cernan who was the last man to walk on the moon on Apollo 17. I also got to meet Astronaut Edward Lu who flew on a shuttle flight to Mir in 1997.

As we were waiting for the launch, we got to see Astronaut Ken Cockrell fly over in the Shuttle Training Aircraft checking out the weather around the launch site. He also made practice approaches to the landing site which is really interesting to see. The shuttle does not land like an airliner does. The shuttle comes down with its nose pointed 22 degrees down and pulls up at the last few seconds to put the landing gear down!

Finally the countdown reached the last hold at T-minus nine minutes. During this hold all the engineers at the Launch Control Center gave the final go for launch. The countdown resumed at 2:10 pm with a cheer from all the guests. Still there was a nervous tension because a small problem could develop and delay the launch in these final nine minutes. There would be no problems though today and the shuttle took off right on time at 2:19 pm. What surprised me the most was the sound of the launch. We did not hear the launch until about 10 seconds into the flight and then the sound wave hit us. The sound of the launch was very loud and the ground also shook almost like an earthquake. We were able to see the shuttle's Solid Rocket Boosters separate at two minutes into the flight. After that I was able to see the shuttle until about four minutes into the flight. Columbia was safely on its way to space! If you ever have the opportunity to view a launch do not think twice about going. It is an experience of a lifetime!


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