This spectacular photo of Monday's shuttle launch, taken with a remote camera by NASA, shows you what it would be like if you were sitting almost underneath the shuttle as it lifted off the pad. It's a shame this launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavor was the final night launch. What is it like to be as close as possible to a shuttle launch at night? I'll tell you, because I was there for the first night launch of the shuttle, Challenger, a long time ago.
It was STS-8, launching on a rainy night on August 30, 1983. After going through the gauntlet of security, we were ushered to the closest location civilians can occupy during a launch, the press area right in front of the large countdown clock, about 2 miles away from launch pad 39A. It's the same complex where Apollo 11 lifted off for the moon. This night, it was the Space Shuttle Challenger standing there, poised for launch.
We became increasingly discouraged as we stood on the soggy shore of the lagoon facing the launch complex — the skies were cloudy, and it looked like it might start raining again. Suddenly, boom! A bolt of lightning slammed into the shuttle on the launch pad. We thought the mission would be scrubbed for sure.
But that night, we were lucky. A couple of hours after midnight, the countdown resumed, and a few minutes later, the space shuttle lit up. The craft and its pad were bathed in a luminance as bright as day, reflecting off the lagoon in front of us. Because of that low cloud cover, the light reflected off the clouds above, glowing brighter as the flicker turned into an inferno. At first it looked like the shuttle was going to just sit there on the pad, but then it lifted off, slowly at first and then gathering speed.
At the same time, the low-pitched rumble of the shuttle's engines swept over us. It didn't seem tremendously loud at first, but then as the spacecraft gathered speed, the low rumble turned into a crackling roar. Riding on a white-hot column of fire, the shuttle entered its roll program, rotating its tail toward us. That's when the loudest crackling occurred, a shuddering shockwave so powerful we could feel it in our chests.
A few seconds later, the shuttle disappeared beyond the clouds, heading into space on its first night launch. Little did we know that Challenger was within seconds of tragedy that night. The nozzle of the left solid rocket booster's resin lining and had come to within 5mm of burning through, giving it 14 seconds of burn time until the nozzle would have ruptured, resulting in the orbiter's destruction. Three years later, a different problem with a solid rocket booster brought Challenger down to the ocean in pieces.
That calamity was not to happen this night, the beginning of a successful shuttle mission with a happy ending. It was a positive experience for us, too, the crew of a PBS astronomy series. Being in the presence of such power and technology was an unexpectedly moving experience. As the spacecraft's roar faded into a faint rumble, we all realized that after witnessing such an awesome event, we would never be the same.