Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Mighty Rumble

As I write this post, the Space Shuttle Discovery is less than 5 minutes from launch. These events are always exciting as a launch can be scrubbed at the very last minute. Everything must be as perfect as science can make it!
With an original fleet of five Shuttles, only three remain. On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated a mere 73 seconds after launch. All seven members of the flight team perished, including a young teacher, Christa McAuliffe who was the first non-astronaut member of a Space Shuttle crew. Christa was chosen out of over 11,000 applicants to be a part of NASA's "Teacher in Space" program. Her mission excited school children all over the country, making the loss all the more tragic.

(Today's launch, thankfully, just occurred - a beautiful twilight liftoff out of Cape Canaveral, Florida. The solid propellant rocket motors performed perfectly, providing 4.5 million pounds of thrust. After about a minute, multiple separation motors ignite (more about them in a minute), moving the huge booster motors safely away from the Shuttle vehicle. These things just never get old!!)

The second loss of a Shuttle space craft was the Columbia, which disintegrated during re-entry on February 1, 2003. Again, all seven astronauts were lost. But the Atlantis, the Discovery and the Endeavor remain and will continue with a precious few more launches through 2010, and then the Space Shuttle program is scheduled to be retired after 30 productive years. Another program is already in the works, going by the working name "Project Constellation."

I have been thrilled by the space program ever since I was a young secretary at United Technology Center (later Chemical Systems Division) - the West Coast division of United Technologies. A solid rocket propulsion company in Sunnyvale and Coyote, I worked at UTC for seven years. This is where I met Mr. H. who was a solid rocket propellant engineer at the time (1972). UTC supplied NASA with the Shuttle separation motors (mentioned above) until Chemical System Division's demise a few years ago - after Mr. H. retired. No, they couldn't operate without him :)

I was fortunate to be a guest at a static test firing of a huge seven-segment rocket motor at the Coyote test facility in the early 70s. Standing amongst the engineers, an early morning cup of coffee in hand, I listened to the countdown from a safe place about a mile from where the rocket motor rested in its silo. The motor was in an inverted position (nobody wanted any loose rocket motors flying off into space, after all). Before testing the motors, these seven-segment giants were assembled nose down so the large plume of fire flew skyward. It was a spectacular sight, and the earth truly rumbled beneath our feet as the solid rocket fuel contained within the motor burned away.

This experience is part of the reason I am still in awe - goosebumps, lump in the throat, tears in the eyes - the whole nine yards - whenever these impressive, beautiful "birds" soar high into the sky, "slip the surly bonds of earth," and burst onward into space.


  1. talking about space shuttle launches and titling it "one big boom" might give someone the wrong impression...

  2. Well...they DO make an awful racket - even when they perform perfectly :)

  3. In deference to Rob's comment, I changed the title..."One big boom" was sounding more disaster-like than not...Thanks, Rob :)