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?

Okay, maybe one recording does convey what it’s like to hear a launch–by focusing on the emotions of people watching it. STS-134 Tweetup attendee Tricia McKinney had the smart idea of aiming her iPhone away from Pad 39A and so captured some wonderfully human reactions as Endeavour raced into the sky.


12 thoughts on “Describing the indescribable: the sound of liftoff

  1. Rob,

    Great post. Especially like the video at the end. How right you were to pass along the emotion of it all via others reactions, and how generous of Tricia to do this. I have mixed emotions about seeing a space shuttle launch.

    I went to an Apollo launch as a college student, lived on the Space Coast of Florida and saw many launches; some up close, most from my house or office window. And as it got pretty regular, I almost skipped getting up from my desk and walking a few feet to the window in January of 1986. I remember standing next to my boss; a bit isolated from the sound, and holding my breath as the contrail took an unusual turn. He said, ‘what’s up with that?’ I replied, ‘I think they are turning around.’ So naive, but hoping for the best as the unthinkable started to drift through the halls. Left work soon after that Challenger launch and cried all the way home.

    The human price of exploration. Let’s hope we continue to have amongst us those that are willing to take such a journey.

    Washington D.C.

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