Before the shuttle is launched, it is assembled. Assembly includes standing the orbiter on its end and attaching the liquid fuel tank to its belly, and the solid fuel boosters to the sides. All of these components are all assembled on a large pad that is transported to the launch area. The building where these pieces are put together is called the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). Here's a picture of Pete standing in front of the VAB.
We're told this is one of the top 3 largest buildings in the country by volume. Our Seattle friends will be pleased to know that Boeing's 747 assembly building in Everett is the largest. That said, the VAB is really quite impressive. To get a sense of scale, the blue area of the flag that's painted on the side of the building is the size of a basketball court. Each star is six feet from end to end. Each stripe is eight feet wide, which is only six inches narrower than our house.
On our tour we were able to get about three and a half miles from the launch pad. This was for safety reasons, as the shuttle was full of fuel. The shuttle was on the far side of the launch pad from the viewing tower, so we could only see the orange tip of the liquid fuel tank.
The launch was scheduled for 10:39 AM on the 16th. We decided to watch the launch from our campground about 15 miles away from the launch pad. We watched NASA TV as the crew was strapped into their seats, and we also watched the countdown all the way to the end, and then we simply went outside and looked up. About 10 seconds after 10:39 the shuttle cleared the trees of the campground and here's what we saw:
The thing that we found most surprising was how quickly it happens. At first, the shuttle was right over the tree tops and you could clearly see the fuel tanks and the flames from the engines. According to the time-stamps on the photos we took, it was only one and a half minutes until the beautiful trail stopped. After that you could still see a small light in the sky that looked like a star visible in the daylight. Two minutes into the flight (from NASA TV) the white solid fuel rockets are jettisoned off the shuttle. We have a photo where you can just barely see the rockets having just been jettisoned, but we didn't notice this until later when we were looking at the pictures. It wasn't something we could see with the naked eye.
We went back inside when we couldn't see the tiny light that was the shuttle any more and it had only been approximately six minutes from liftoff. Launch control was just saying that the shuttle was 200 miles down range from the launch pad. That means they were traveling roughly 2000 miles per hour. After just about ten minutes, the shuttle had jettisoned its large fuel tank and was in orbit. It is pretty amazing to think about that -- on the ground ready for launch, and then just ten minutes later, happily in space orbiting the earth. Thinking about space travel, it just sounds like something that should take longer than ten minutes.
From our vantage point 15 miles away, the sound was also impressive. We were far enough away that it was obviously a big noise, but not a painful one. It sounded sort of like a very large airplane in the distance. It was a deep rumbling noise that came to us after the shuttle had been visible for about 20 seconds, and only lasted for about 30 seconds. After that it was out of our range to hear it.
Despite the weather forecast for the weekend that has the coldest temperatures Florida has seen this winter, we are heading north to St. Augustine to visit some friends from Seattle.