Describing the indescribable: the sound of liftoff

As a student of the English language, I appreciate the challenge of trying to describe something that readers haven’t experienced. It’s an honor to have your words serve as your audience’s senses, and you don’t want to let them down.

Over the last week, I’ve been observing many writers tackle a particularly difficult task of description: conveying what it’s like to hear the space shuttle lift off.

Having been privileged to witness that twice, I can assure you that no recording does it justice. (I saw Endeavour lift off in May as an attendee of the Tweetup NASA organized for that STS-134 mission, then returned this month with a press pass to write about the STS-135 Tweetup experience at Atlantis’s final launch for Discovery News and, in an article I need to finish writing, for ReadWriteWeb.)

The microphones on a lot of consumer-level gadgets are woefully inadequate to capture the finer points of nearly 7 million pounds of thrust erupting from only three miles away. But even the best audio gear available can’t recreate the feel of the shock waves blasted through the air by that energy, rushing up at spectators and thumping them in the chest. You’d have to set off explosives; pending the Air and Space Museum’s IMAX theater acquiring an ordnance budget and a long series of regulatory waivers, words will have to do.

Which words, though? Although the immediate reaction of many Tweetup attendees was that none would suffice, they found their own in the days after the launch.

Sarah Boots:

It feels like soundwaves hitting you, more than it feels like hearing something. It was completely mad.

Travis Senor:

THE SOUND! It came at us like a wave, which you could almost see coming, and hit with enough force to act on us as though we were trees bowing in the wind.

Jason Snell (you may also know him as Macworld’s editorial director):

a loud crackling sound as the air was shattered by the forces of the shuttle’s three main engines and its two solid rocket boosters.

A friend on Facebook tried this:

an intense crackling, like someone shaking a metal sheet.

Jason Major:

a growing rumble that culminated in a deep, flapping roar that you could feel as much as hear.

Among the assembled press, Ars Technica’s Jonathan M. Gitlin may have had the most creative description:

The first analogy I could think of was a washing machine full of rocks mixed over the sound of tearing giant sheets of canvas.

And me? Here’s how I described it in May:

a relentless, thunderous crackling, rumbling across the sky and through our shirts

But when I wrote an e-mail to my wife the day after the liftoff of Atlantis, I reached for a metaphor:

like fireworks erupting closer and closer and faster and faster until they’re pounding you in the chest.

I’m sad that nobody else will be able to experience this. But how we reached that point is a subject for another post.

Until then: If you’ve had the tremendous fortune to witness a launch from up close, how would you describe that sound?

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NASA Tweetup tips

If your inbox has an e-mail from a nasa.gov address with the subject line “STS-135 Tweetup CONFIRMATION”–congratulations! You won one of 150 invitations to see the last space shuttle launch from the Kennedy Space Center’s press site, about 3 miles from pad 39A.

Tweetup badges

You’re in for an amazing experience, as I found when I attended NASA’s Tweetup for the final launch of Endeavour in May. But it can also be intimidating to prepare for. Here are some tips I picked up that may help you get ready for your Tweetup.

(If you didn’t get that e-mail, don’t lose heart. People do get called up off the waitlist.)

Travel: As you may have read here before, the shuttle is not the most reliable vehicle ever, making the odds of an on-time launch for Atlantis on July 8 rather poor. Paying change fees or buying a refundable fare gets expensive quickly. Instead, fly Southwest or check fares between your city and Orlando a week from now; if they’re not much cheaper than tickets a month out, wait to book until NASA sets the official launch date at the Flight Readiness Review June 28.

Check alternate airports too. Melbourne is closer than Orlando; Tampa may be on the other coast of Florida, but the generous speed limits allow you to clock that distance in about two hours if you don’t hit traffic.

Hotels can be trickier. At the STS-134 Tweetup, many of us wound up staying together in rented houses or apartments for the first launch attempt–yes, despite the fact that most of had not met each other face to face until then. On the second attempt, with fewer people around, hotels weren’t a problem.

I usually Priceline rental cars but did not in this case: I wanted to be able to return them early or extend the rental if necessary.

Tweetup, day one: This is when NASA gives you a tour around the Kennedy Space Center–the highlight being the chance to walk into the Vehicle Assembly Building and gawk at a roof more than 500 feet overhead. As it gets damn hot in Florida, bring water and wear sunscreen. We were told to bring food as well, but that proved unnecessary when they invited us to hit the employee cafeteria. (The food is nothing special, but how many other cafeterias are across the street from a building tall enough to stack a Saturn V?)

The Tweetup will also feature talks and demonstrations by various NASA types. My favorites were astronauts recounting their experiences going up, staying there and coming back. The day should conclude with a ride out to the pad to see the Rotating Service Structure (the large structure on the pad that covers the shuttle until a day before launch) roll back to reveal Atlantis. But it may not: weather prevented our viewing RSS retraction on the first try, and I couldn’t get back to KSC in time to see it on the second launch attempt.

Tweetup, day two: This involves long stretches of waiting, punctuated by stabs of adrenaline when the countdown comes out of a hold, you look at the shuttle on the pad or you hear somebody speak the words “shuttle,” “liftoff” or “launch.” Aside from further talks by NASA folks, the only major event we had on the schedule before the launch was the chance to wave to the astronauts on their ride to the pad in NASA’s “Astrovan”–which, on the first try, came to an untimely halt when a wiring problem emerged and the Astrovan made a U-turn away from the pad.

It will be tempting to freak out over the weather. But although NASA’s Launch Commit Criteria look absurdly strict, they only apply to conditions at launch, not four hours before.

The press site–basically, an open lawn–affords a ridiculous amount of space to roam around. The closest possible view will put you on the other side of the countdown clock, but that was the only place I could park my tripod for an unobstructed view.

Many people don’t recommend trying to photograph a shuttle launch at all–you don’t want to watch it through a viewfinder. To avoid that issue, lock the camera on a tripod, oriented vertically, so it has the shuttle no higher than the lower third of the frame. (Don’t worry too much about getting the enormous zoom lenses you’ll see recommended for more distant spots; I took my photos with maybe a 20x zoom, using automatic focus and exposure.) When you get to a few seconds before liftoff, mash the shutter button repeatedly; 5 seconds after liftoff, zoom all the way out and keep pressing the shutter.

For the love of all that’s holy, don’t try to live-tweet the launch. But after the shuttle has departed from view, jot down your impressions while they’re still fresh.

Don’t plan on going anywhere for at least two hours after launch–it will take a while for the roads to clear.

With STS-135 currently set to launch in the late morning, I suggest getting a pre-launch breakfast at Baker’s Bagels, on State Route 3 a few miles south of the south entrance to KSC. When I stopped there in April, I was amused to a) see a kegerator with a “free beer” sign taped to its side and b) have missed Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley checking in there 20 minutes earlier. For a late lunch or dinner, Shuttle’s Dugout Sports Bar & Grill, a bit farther south on 3, could be any other sports bar–except for the shuttle and Saturn V models out front, the NASA photos inside and the KSC employees who show up.

What if it scrubs? Don’t panic, and don’t make plans based on initial estimates of the new launch time–especially if it’s a mechanical issue at fault. Use your extra free time to tour the KSC visitors’ center (we got free admission), and make time in particular for the hokey but enjoyable Shuttle Launch Experience ride. There are also non-space attractions nearby, such as beaches or the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. And take time to hang out with your fellow Tweetup attendees–having a beer with them while discussing when the launch might happen is all part of this weird bonding experience.

NASA Tweetup: T-0 arrives

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER–I’d said I’d be back, and here I was after a day and night of travel that had included three airports, two flights, one border crossing and 120 miles of Florida highways.

But those nine hours aren’t important. What happened next is.

Launch day had begun with my waking up after maybe 45 minutes of fitful, futile sleep, then showering, getting dressed and heading over to the Kennedy Space Center.

Even at the dead hour of 3:30 in the morning, KSC showed no signs of slumber, with the pad and Endeavour bathed in floodlights, countdown announcements echoing off the pavement and the Vehicle Assembly Building and helicopters flying overhead.

Unlike the first attempt at launch, there was no comfortable tent for myself and the other attendees of the Tweetup NASA organized for the launch. Instead, we shivered on a set of increasingly damp metal bleachers with occasional breaks to share snacks and position tripods.

A few minutes after 5, our vigil was punctuated by the arrival of the “Astrovan” carrying the crew to the pad. This time, there was no U-turn signaling a scrub (gratifying the Tweetup attendees who brought handmade signs advising against going anywhere but the pad). After a retreat to a nearby press auditorium for a presentation about a planned test of an automated docking system–a somewhat difficult thing to focus on with the monitors next to the podium showing Endeavour’s crew getting strapped into the cabin–the sky lightened.

Layers of clouds moved in and out over the next two hours, giving the anxious among us–meaning all of us–reasons to worry about yet another scrub. But the decision from NASA at each time was the same: Go.

The last scheduled hold ended with nine minutes left, the countdown clock resumed ticking, and my heart promptly leapt higher in my throat than I would have thought possible. I walked over to my tripod and verified for the 20th time that I had the shuttle in frame and in focus.

That spot, on the nearest edge of the KSC press site to Pad 39A–only about three miles away–provided the closest view. But it also offered the least context. I could no longer see the countdown clock (though the photographer to my right had a countdown app on his phone) or hear the announcements.

With less than two minutes left, I observed through binoculars that NASA had retracted the “beanie cap” vent hood that covers the top of the external tank. But it wasn’t until the last 20 seconds were ticking away that everyone nearby began counting down aloud, and it all became even more gut-churningly real.

Ten… nine… eight… seven… six… somebody yelled “main engine start!”, and we knew the shuttle’s three engines had lit from the cloud of steam that erupted at the pad… five… four… three… two… one… an intense white light, bright as the hazy sun, shot through from the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters and Endeavour sprang off the pad.

For the first few seconds, the soundtrack was all human: cheers, whoops, applause. I did my part by shouting my fool head off–”Go, Endeavour!”–as I mashed the camera’s shutter button.

Then the noise of Endeavour’s launch assaulted us–a relentless, thunderous crackling, rumbling across the sky and through our shirts–while that white-hot glow from her boosters shot her upward, faster and faster.

On television, where the camera pans to follow the shuttle, this machine may appear to be soaring. From the ground, it looked more like it was getting thrown straight into the sky. There is a primal, visceral immediacy to its escape from gravity: The shuttle wants to fly, now.

It took no more than 20 seconds for Endeavour to punch a hole through a thin layer of clouds, leaving only the continuing racket of her ascent and a pillar of orange-tinged smoke. And an enormous grin welded to my face.

(Edits, 6/3: Gave this a slight rewrite and added a gallery of my photos after the jump. 6/27: Looked up some of my original tweets and embedded them in the post for a bit of a Storify treatment.)

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NASA Tweetup, day two: The scrub

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER–Today’s KSC experience here started with a jolt of adrenaline as I saw the countdown clock ticking, then ended with a sigh and a shrug as the launch was scrubbed.

The Astrovan heads back.

It happens. In this case, the fault was with malfunctioning heaters for one of Endeavour’s three Auxiliary Power Units–small turbines at the tail of the orbiter that power its hydraulics. NASA thinks it’s a wiring fault, but that’s a crowded part of the shuttle. (If you’ve ever had to pay $1,000 or so to have a compact car’s timing  belt changed, you may be familiar with the basic issue here.) So we’re looking at a minimum of a 72-hour delay, to Monday at 2:33 p.m.

We found out about this in a surprisingly direct manner. We had all gathered by the road leading to Pad 39A (speed limit 35 MPH) to cheer on the “Astrovan” taking Endeavour’s crew there when the van, trailed by a small motorcade, pulled over to the short street leading to the Launch Control Center, stopped for a few minutes as we wondered about the reasons for the detour, and then reversed course.

Moments later, somebody was reading word of the scrub–initially forecast at 48 hours–from a message on their BlackBerry. NASA social-media manager Stephanie Schierholz (who has been absurdly productive and cheerful all week) confirmed the delay, which was then pushed back further. It may change again after NASA’s 4 p.m. press conference on the scrub.

Flags fluttering in a strong breeze early Friday morning

I’d worried about that. Not to be rude, but the shuttle has a lousy record for on-time departures. And on this day in particular, the weather looked questionable too. Although the skies have cleared up, the wind remains strong here, and the forecast had been questionable at the shuttle’s three transatlantic-abort landing sites.

Fortunately, my flight home wasn’t scheduled until Monday afternoon, and I can always reschedule that yet again. (Have I mentioned that my schedule is pretty flexible these days?) Many of the other Tweetup attendees are staying too–although I feel terrible for the ones who can’t. So we’ll work our problem while NASA works theirs.

What else are you going to do? Get mad? If launching six people into orbit on a reusable spacecraft were easy, another country would have done it by now. And if watching a shuttle launch were easy, I would have crossed that off the bucket list already. You have to be able to deal with the possibility of a delay. As somebody once observed of a somewhat-related set of circumstances: “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.”