"7...6...main engine start."
The three liquid-fueled engines ignite and there's a deafening noise in
the cockpit. A growling, wrenching vibration shakes us. I have to force
myself to keep watching the instruments. It's like trying to read a book
on a theme park ride. The noise and vibration and the thrill and fear
makes it impossible to concentrate.
The countdown continues while Atlantis' computers check that the
liquid-fueled engines are working okay. The three liquid-fueled engines
are started early because they can be turned off if something is wrong,
like a car engine can be turned off. But the solid-fueled boosters on
the sides of the shuttle are like 4th of July bottle rockets. Once
they're started, they cannot be turned off. Only at the very last moment,
when the countdown reaches zero, will they be ignited.
The solid-fueled rocket boosters start, the threaded nuts holding them to
the pad are exploded into pieces and the giant machine blasts from the
launch pad. The noise is incredible! Only because I'm wearing a helmet
can I hear Mission Control talking to us. The engines are so powerful
that I'm shoved backwards into my seat by a force one and half times as
strong as gravity. It makes my body and everything I'm wearing seem to
weigh an extra hundred pounds.
"Roll program!" The Commander shouts into his microphone. Atlantis is
rolling to the right to aim its trajectory over the ocean.
"Throttle down!" The Commander sees that our engines are automatically
reducing power. Atlantis is accelerating too fast and there's a danger
that the thick atmosphere will tear her apart. The computers prevent this
from happening by commanding the engines to pull back their power.
Shock waves form on the nose and wings and add to the shaking. Atlantis
is going through the sound barrier. In just 40 seconds the huge engines
and solid-fueled rocket boosters have pushed a 4 1/2 million pound
machine straight up to the speed of sound! Just imagine the incredible
power needed to do that. The rushing sound of supersonic air howls
around the machine. It's louder than any airplane you've ever heard. The
vibrations increase. My eyes skip from instrument to instrument. Is
everything still okay? Will all this shaking damage something? Will our
air leak out? Will the engines quit? Will they explode? I worry about
everything. But the instruments tell me that Atlantis is "nominal", that
everything is okay.
A cloud zooms into our windshield and disappears behind us. Once again, I
can feel my body being squeezed backwards. It's from the engines
returning to full power. We're above the thick atmosphere and don't have
to worry any more about the air pressure tearing Atlantis apart. The ride
is smoothing out.
There's no line that you pass where all the air is below and space is
above. The atmosphere just keeps getting thinner and thinner and, as it
does, the sky changes from blue to black. It becomes as black as night.
Sirius, the brightest star, appears. It's so strange to see a black sky
and a bright star while sunlight is filling the cockpit, but that's what I
see from the shuttle windows.
"PC less than fifty!" The numbers are flashing on our computer and the
Commander calls them to Mission Control. The pressure inside the
solid-fueled rocket motors has decreased to 50 pounds per square inch.
That means the boosters are nearly out of fuel.
A loud bang shakes the cockpit and a flash of yellow fire covers the
Has something exploded?! Is there an emergency?!
No. The noise
and fire are from the release of the giant boosters. They have burned out
and small rockets on their nose and tail have blown them away from the
shuttle. Parachutes will lower them into the ocean where tugboats will pick
them up so they can be used over again.
As the boosters fall away, a total silence comes to the cockpit. It's a
silence as empty as the sky in our windows. We are high enough now, and
the air is so thin that sound cannot travel. So we can't hear any noise
from our three liquid-fueled engines or hear any air rushing by the
cockpit. The ride becomes as smooth as glass. The only feeling we have of
being thrust into space is an increasing force on our bodies. As the
engines use the liquid fuel out of the big orange belly tank, the rocket
gets lighter and lighter. It goes faster and faster and we get squeezed
backwards into our seats. Imagine being in a dark, quiet room with an
invisible hand pushing on your chest. That's what it feels like.
"Atlantis, you're two engine TAL."
The call from Mission Control means that we are now high enough and going
fast enough that if one of our engines quit, we could fly across the
Atlantic Ocean and make an emergency landing in Europe. If that happened,
it would be a 35 minute flight. It takes an airplane seven hours, but in a
space shuttle you fly across the ocean in just 35 minutes!
"Atlantis, you're negative return."
"Roger, Houston...negative return."
We always repeat to Mission Control what they tell us, so they know we've
heard them correctly. This latest call, "negative return", means that we're
now too far away and going too fast to be able to do an emergency landing
back at the Kennedy Space Center. Now, if anything goes wrong and we can't
reach orbit, we have to fly straight ahead to an emergency field in Africa
One of the crewmembers is a rookie and he lets out a cheer. That seems
strange, doesn't it, that an astronaut would cheer while this dangerous ride
is still going on? But he has good reason to celebrate. Atlantis has just
passed 50 miles altitude. What's so special about that? The official
definition of an astronaut is anybody that has traveled at least 50 miles
above the earth. The man cheering is a rookie, so this is the first time
he's ever gotten high enough to be an "official" astronaut.
"Atlantis, you're press to MECO."
"Roger, Houston...press to MECO."
Now the space shuttle is going so fast and is so high that if one of her
engines quit, we could still make it to MECO, Main Engine Cut-Off. We could
limp into orbit on two engines.
Higher! Higher and faster! The velocity meter shows our incredible
speeds...13...15...17...20 times the speed of sound!
Atlantis is leveling her nose, silently tearing into the black of space.
Throughout the entire flight, she has slowly gone from pointing straight up
to being nearly level with the earth.
...21...22...23 times the speed of sound!
My heart is thumping wildly. But it's not from fear. Now, it's from the
thrill of the adventure. Once again, I'm going into space! Once again, the
joy of having a dream come true is sweeping over me! I want to scream my
happiness! I want to shout for all the world to hear! I'm going into
space! I'm an astronaut!