T+366 days

One year ago today, I was standing on a scruffy lawn in Florida, bleary-eyed from having slept an hour in the last 20–and feeling none of the fatigue accumulated from that sleep debt and compounded over an afternoon, evening and night of travel.

I don’t think there has been a day since May 16, 2011 when I haven’t thought about the mind-expanding experience of seeing a space shuttle launch for the first time.

First the waiting–welling up in the predawn hours from a kid’s Christmas Eve anticipation to the electricity in the stands at a baseball game before a walk-off home run for your team. The “oh my God, we’re really going to do this” moment at about T-15 seconds. Then the visceral jolt of seeing Endeavour’s rockets split the sky open with a sustained, brilliant flash of light, throwing that improbable machine into the clouds–and hearing and feeling the crackling avalanche of sound rush right up and over us.

The birth of our daughter was about as exciting–also experienced on near-zero sleep!–but I can’t think of much else that compares. Except for seeing the final shuttle launch with a press pass in July. (If you can get away with doing a once-in-a-lifetime thing twice without taking somebody else’s spot, do it; after taking the canonical launch photo on my first try, I could soak everything in the second time.)

Witnessing this controlled explosion didn’t last long, but I think if you ask any of the NASA Tweetup attendees who returned to the Kennedy Space Center for the launch after the scrub two weeks earlier, they’d all say it was one of the greatest moments of their lives. And that it taught something about endeavoring through adversity–or, at least, about the importance of avoiding short circuits in a Load Controller Assembly box.

I’ve retold this story dozens of times to friends and strangers, and I’m still trying to get the language right. Maybe I’m overthinking it. When I saw the Daily Show’s John Oliver do his comedy routine in March, he needed far fewer words than this post to convey his reaction to seeing the launch of Atlantis from the same KSC lawn: “Holy fucking shit!”

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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The weight of the wait

CAPE CANAVERAL–If all goes well, we’ll launch on Monday. If all does not, we might not. I don’t know more than that. And trying to research the issue further won’t provide any more information, since NASA only opened the shuttle’s engine compartment earlier this afternoon.

So instead of letting the weight of the wait build, I’m going to do something I can’t do at home: Close the laptop, leave the phone charging, and walk one block to the beach with a book, a towel and a countdown to a nap.

But even there, the scenery on the horizon may bring to mind the possibility that has us  waiting in joyful hope. [Edit: Or writhing in agony.]