The Final Launch of Space Shuttle Discovery

STS-133 "Launch day is always the longest...", one of the reporters in the NASA Media Center Annex says to no one in particular.

STS-133 He's right, for someone reporting on a Shuttle launch, you are rushing to set up, shoot, file (or post) your images/video/stories, and then the big rush right up to launch time. And then there is usually a delay, so you've rushed rushed rushed and are all setup and then... maybe it's not going to launch after all. Your nerves are on edge. Will it go? Will it go?

STS-133 And then the countdown clock starts up again. You hear a cheer from the VIP seating area. Then 15 seconds later again a chorus of groans, we're back in hold.

Watching the press conference right now, the launch almost didn't happen. If something would have taken 2 seconds more, they would have lost the launch window; the launch would have been aborted. "This was one for the record books," someone from the launch team says in the press conference. "We were a couple seconds from losing the window."

STS-133 I was running around setting up multiple cameras, some audio recorders, and trying to upload a bunch of stuff right up until 15 minutes before the launch. I had my tripod setup, basically saving my place in the line. I get there, lock down the video camera and mount the DSLR on my monopod. Setup the audio recorder. Everything is looking good. I check my iPhone and the MissionClock app to see how long we have to launch. "Error connecting to network, times may be inaccurate". Oh well, at least I know that I have a few minutes.

"Problem on the Range" someone says. "The Range is No Go!" In this case, the range had an equipment problem. The Range needs to tell you that it's safe to launch, and things seemed fine, but Range had to resolve their tech problem before they could clear it. I guess it's like when you're flying, and you can't take off because an indicator light isn't working. When you're flying 500,000 gallons of rocket fuel, you have to be extra, extra careful.

"Range safety from out side was never an issue," the NASA spokesman says later during the press conference. A piece of ground equipment failed after it had completed it's task, caused a power fault, which kept the Range people from being able to give the clear signal.

STS-133 I keep looking through the DSLR viewfinder, to see if I can see the "mushroom" move away from the top of Discovery. This is the last thing that happens before they start the engines, and means you have at least 2 minutes until launch.

STS-133 Then the Range clears, and the countdown starts, again to cheering from the VIP bleachers. This in turn affects the people in the photographers' line and everyone is really excited. The mushroom moves away. "T-Minus 2 minutes!" someone yells.

STS-133 We can't hear the PA system where we are; wireless devices can't communicate; but someone has brought a scanner and we're listening on that. Analog radio comes through; digital has failed us. Kind of appropriate for the final launch of a shuttle that's 30 years old.

"T-minus 20 seconds and counting" the scanner says, people in the crowd echoing it. "10 Seconds. FIVE. FOUR. THREE. Main Engin Start! TWO ONE!" And then we see the exhaust plumes. And everyone cheers.

STS-133 This is where it's pretty hard to explain truly what a launch experience is like. We are 3 miles away from the launch pad.

STS-133 That means we see the exhaust before we hear anything. We see the flame before we hear anything. Then you see the flame is brighter than the sun, a more intense orange. A massive jet of flame behind the rocket.

STS-133 Then you hear the sound of the main engine. It's a big rumble. Kind of like an earthquake crossed with a jet airliner flying overhead. It's loud. But then the solid rocket boosters kick in. And suddenly it sounds like you're inside a giant drum that 100 monkeys are banging on.

"Wow, it makes that popping sound in real life!" a young man in his early 20s- and part o the Tweetup group- later says. "I always thought it was the sound guy messing up and it was distortion in the recording. But it really sounds that way."

STS-133 Skip Pizzi, a broadcast engineer, explains it to me. "The sound is so loud that the waveform of the positive side of the peak is over 1 atmosphere, and so the corresponding negative peak should exceed a vacuum. So the sound is being clipped by the atmosphere!" That explains why it sounds in real life like a distorted audio recording.

A few seconds later, I feel a force pushing me back. Is this the sound waves? Are they that loud that I feel like I'm being blown? It must be. Then I hear the roofs of the buildings around me start to rattle.

STS-133 At this point, the size of the exhaust plume - cloud white - is overwhelming, and the sound starts to become more distant. But it takes several minutes for it to fade away. The plume largely vanishes when the SRBs - Solid Rocket Boosters - turn off and separate. By then, the shuttle is a bright white point in the sky - a small dot, brighter than Venus.

But then too, that fades.

STS-133 The professionals are hurring back to the Media Center to unload their cameras, file their stories and upload their pictures.

STS-133 The VIPs and the Tweetup people walk around and talk about how amazing it was. And with good reason. One woman near me remarks, "I need a cigarette after that...".

The launch pad is empty, and looks lonely. The huge plume of exhaust and steam that minutes ago obstructed our view of the launch pad has now drifted away. The launch is over.

A while later, back in the Media Annex, some of the photographers are getting back their "remote" cameras from the launch area. These are cameras that are setup, and activated either by timers or by sound triggers. The cameras are setup more than 24 hours in advance. They're protected by various different means: plastic bags and gaffer tape, metal housings, fancy custom cases. Apparently the main thing you need to worry about is having the camera exposed to the weather for that much time.

Some of them are really excited. A few others seem let down. I guess you don't know how the wind will blow the exhaust plumes, maybe it's right between your camera and the shuttle and you don't see anything. Maybe you've been lucky enough to get it framed perfectly. It's a gamble. Most guys put 2 cameras out there if they're working solo.

STS-133 Everyone is rushing to file. And everyone is having problems with the WiFi which went out shortly before launch. Most everyone has a cell data card of have tethered to their phones, but all the cell networks are super slow too. After about 10 minutes, your picture is filed and you can relax.

STS-133 "Oh, we're going to sleep our asses off tomorrow," one reporter says to some guys from another network.

Pretty much everyone has been here since early this morning, and they were here since before 6am yesterday and stayed until after 10pm to get the shots of the RSS rollback. Then back early this morning.


The Media Center was supposed to be closed by 8pm. But at a quarter to nine, it was still packed. If the WiFi was working there would be even more people here. But some fled back to their motels and hotels just to get faster net access. The people who cover shuttle launches do it largely out of love, fascination with "big iron", and a sense of adventure. If there was a bar at the Kennedy Space Center, they might never leave.

STS-133 After seeing the amazing thing that occurred today, I have hope for a future that we may not truly fathom yet: all because six people road a machine filled with half a million gallons of ultra-flammable liquid to an outpost we've build in space.

STS-133 Space Shuttle Launch

It's simply incredible, that's what it is.

Story and Photography by Rusty Hodge for SomaFM. Merin McDonell was our editor and assistant producer. ©2011 LLC. All Rights Reserved.


The Final Launch of Space Shuttle Discovery