Countdown To Atlantis Lift-Off: Bittersweet Cheers

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Counting down to NASA's final space shuttle launch Friday, Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne share footage from the shuttle program's roaring start 30 years ago. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports a celebratory but bittersweet mood at Kennedy Space Center, NPR's Joe Palca describes the shuttle, and NPR's Greg Allen reports from crowds viewing the launchpad from Florida's Space Coast. Finally, a narration of lift-off.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

All this morning, we're bringing you coverage of NASA's final space shuttle launch, which is scheduled for just under six minutes from now. It was over 30 years ago that the program got off to a roaring start, so to speak. NASA launched the very first space shuttle on April 12, 1981.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

NOAH ADAMS: This is an NPR special report. The maiden voyage of the U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia is once again in the final stages of countdown...

INSKEEP: That was NPR's Noah Adams in Washington in 1981. SCIENCE FRIDAY's Ira Flatow narrated events from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

IRA FLATOW: Looks like a huge Roman candle, but a very, very bright flame and white, white smoke coming down. It is now getting smaller, getting out of sight.

Unidentified Man #1: Four-thirty-four, about (unintelligible).

FLATOW: Going up - a perfect, perfect launch, and we can tell from here. Everything seems to be going just fine. We'll be getting close to the time...

Unidentified Woman #1: TLT, OTC, perform...

INSKEEP: That's how the first launch sounded in 1981. And now we're listening to the radio feed from NASA as they prepare for the final, the 135th shuttle launch, now less than five minutes away. Let's listen for a few seconds.

Unidentified Man #2: Solid rocket booster-safe armed devices are now being armed.

INSKEEP: We're looking at Atlantis on the launch platform.

Unidentified Man #3: OTC, TLT, trigger (unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman #2: Copy 3 (unintelligible)

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

OK. So we're looking at Atlantis today, and we were just hearing about the very first shuttle launch, Columbia. And Steve, those were the days when NPR covered every single launch, as if it was, you know, headline news in those first few launches.

INSKEEP: And then it became routine.

MONTAGNE: And then it became routine and we covered it like a regular news story.

Unidentified Man #3: ...a check of the orbiter's flight controls.

INSKEEP: We're about four minutes away now, at this point.

Let's go to NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce. She is at the Cape Canaveral - at Cape Canaveral, at the Cape Kennedy Space Center, the Kennedy Space Center.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Hello. Can you hear me?

INSKEEP: Hi, Nell. What's happening where you are?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, I'm looking out at the shuttle now. People have poured out of the press center and out of tents. They're all on the big, grassy lawn looking out at the shuttle. We can see clouds up in the sky, but apparently the weather is good enough for them to give the go for launch.

There's this big digital countdown clock and it is now counting down right next to an American flag. And it is amazing how many people have just suddenly appeared on the lawn with their eyes staring straight at the shuttle.

INSKEEP: I just want to mention briefly a couple of phrases we heard on the NASA radio feed. They're going back and forth. They were making judgments about the weather, about whether the weather was good enough to return to the launch site and land the shuttle if there was a problem. They decided it was a, quote, "acceptable risk." Even though there's a chance of precipitation, they said let's go to launch. And now the countdown is continuing.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's right. They truly take weather prediction here to the level of rocket science. And they have a lot of constraints for weather. But here, today, they say they're ready to go.

INSKEEP: Let's see what things look like, get a word-picture from NPR's Greg Allen, now. He's on the line from Titusville, Florida, which is one of the closest places that people outside the space program and the media can get a look at this. Greg, what do you see?

GREG ALLEN: Right, Steve. I'm told by some of the folks who are here that we're just 11 miles from the launch pad. You can see it barely right now, because it's behind, like, a tower. When it starts to take off, I'm told that you'll be - no question that the shuttle is taking off. You'll see it, and then you'll start to feel it. Just - and it takes quite some time for the sound to get here.

So but I can tell you the crowd here has been very enthusiastic and excited since I got here at three in the morning, and there was people who started arriving here yesterday afternoon. There's lots of tents. There's lots of vendors here. It's a carnival atmosphere. They're really having a good time.

And I - all day long, people have been very optimistic that the launch is going to take off - was going to go off as planned. And it looks now as if that - all that optimism might have been - be rewarded.

INSKEEP: Very quickly, NPR's Joe Palca is with us. He covers the space program.

Joe, what are we watching here on this television screen?

JOE PALCA: Well, we're watching this cap that sits on top of the shuttle being removed and set aside, and also just heard that the crew has been told to put their visors down and it's less than two minutes to launch.

INSKEEP: We've got a giant liquid-fuel tank. It's kind of rust-red, is perhaps the color of it. You've got the two solid fuel rocket boosters, and you've got the shuttle itself. It'll all be going - if things go according to plan - in a little more than a minute, here.

PALCA: That's right. Five hundred - more than 500,000 gallons of propellant in that big tank, and it's going to use up most of it, almost all of it.

INSKEEP: Well, why don't we bring up the NASA feed, and let's listen to this final minute of what is expected to be - a bit more than a minute, now, about a minute-15, a minute-20 before what is expected to be the final shuttle launch, Shuttle Atlantis. Our crew, Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim on board: four Americans.

People are crowding at the edge of a lake. They can see the shuttle over the...

Unidentified Man #4: T-minus one minute.

INSKEEP: T-minus one minute, he says. The shuttle over the water, over the trees. We've got a view of it here on the television screen. They've got a view in person, waiting for that immense, immense sound.

Unidentified Man #4: Oxygen and liquid hydrogen fill and drain valves are closed.

INSKEEP: Referring to the fuel.

PALCA: Now these are all the steps that need to take place right at the end, as they get ready to launch.

Unidentified Man #4: T-minus 35, 33...

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man #5: (unintelligible) hold at t-minus 31 seconds due to a failure.

INSKEEP: I'm beginning to hear cheers.

PALCA: No, they've just gone into a hold.

Unidentified Man #4: (unintelligible) sequencer.

Unidentified Man #5: We have a problem (unintelligible) three (unintelligible).

MONTAGNE: Joe...

INSKEEP: We've stopped at 31 seconds, here.

MONTAGNE: Seconds, there.

Unidentified Man #5: ...got to go do the standard verification per the LCC, please.

MONTAGNE: This is a little bit technical, Joe. Do you know what's going on?

PALCA: I'm trying to listen. It's a lot of jargon. I'm afraid I don't have it all down yet.

Unidentified Man #6: Positioning camera 62 right now.

Unidentified Man #5: OK. Let us know as soon as 62 has swung over, and you can verify LCC for GVA. Retract, please.

INSKEEP: We're all listening together, here, and trying to figure this out. It appeared like the weather, though marginal, was just good enough: hazy skies over Cape Canaveral, the Kennedy Space Center, and yet we're in a holding pattern.

MONTAGNE: Could it be something...

Unidentified Man #7: (unintelligible)

MONTAGNE: Joe, could it be something not to do with what the weather is there, but maybe something else outside in...

PALCA: No. This is not weather-related. I think, as I'm hearing this, I think it's the - that - I'm not sure. But it might be that cap that they were just removing.

INSKEEP: It didn't remove all the way?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: If this is a technical glitch, they'll have just a few minutes to resolve it to make this launch window.

Unidentified Man #7: OK. I copy.

INSKEEP: Well, now we're getting a television view of that cap, which automatically came off the top of the gigantic, gigantic fuel tank. Nell Greenfieldboyce, do you have any sense - any insight of what might be going on from your perspective there at Cape Canaveral?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It seems as though there is a technical glitch, and if so, they only have a very short period of time to resolve it before they'll miss this launch window.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by launch window? Explain what that would be.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA always has a certain window of time they can launch. And they try to aim right for the middle of it, but they still have some time after that.

MONTAGNE: When you say a short time, do you mean minutes, seconds or an hour?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: About 10 minutes. About 10 minutes.

MONTAGNE: Well, why don't we take a chance then. We're watching this very closely, but I know you have with you astronaut Shannon Walker. Maybe we could put her on the phone and speak to her for a moment or two as we keep an eye on the launch. And, of course, we'll go right back to it if it looks like a countdown has been resumed.

PALCA: They're getting - excuse me, Renee. They're getting ready to proceed.

MONTAGNE: OK.

PALCA: They're going to pick up the count in just a few seconds.

MONTAGNE: OK. We'll stick with it, then.

INSKEEP: So the giant clock on a lawn, which we can see through a television image from NASA, is stuck at 31 seconds, and we're waiting for it to head down.

MONTAGNE: And then, of course, there's people all...

INSKEEP: Here we go. The clock is going down. So we're about 20 seconds to go here. And let's just give a listen. We'll give a listen to these final seconds.

Unidentified Man #8: Fifteen.

Unidentified Man #9: Go for main engine start. T-minus 10, nine, eight, seven, six, five...

Mr. ROB NAVIAS (Program and Mission Operations Lead, NASA): All three engines up and burning - two, one, zero, and liftoff, the final liftoff of Atlantis. On the shoulders of the space shuttle, America will continue the dream.

INSKEEP: Enormous clouds of smoke and flame.

MONTAGNE: Fiery tail.

INSKEEP: That's inspiring, no matter how many times you've seen it. And it's been seen more than 100 times - still astonishing. There it goes.

Unidentified Man #9: Twenty-four seconds...

INSKEEP: Angling a little bit. We're twenty-four seconds in. We're listening to the roar of those engines, the solid-fuel boosters. We're getting to be about 30 seconds, close to 30 seconds in, the engines will back off a bit.

Joe Palca, is that correct?

PALCA: Yeah. They throttle down for a bit to relieve some of the stress on the spacecraft. And then it comes back up. There it is, you heard - backed down to 72 percent.

Unidentified Man #9: ...reducing stress on the shuttle as it goes transonic for the final time. Engines now revving up, standing by for the throttle-up call.

INSKEEP: OK. We're looking at a camera view now of the shuttle, from - what it looks like looking back down at earth, that they are beyond the cloud cover, beyond that haze which hung over for most of the morning the Kennedy Space Center.

Unidentified Man #10: Atlantis, go at throttle-up, no action DPDT.

INSKEEP: Go at throttle-up, no action.

Unidentified Man #11: Go at throttle-up, no action on DPDT.

Mr. NAVIAS: That call from Capcom Barry Wilmore, a transducer. Instrumentation only, no action required.

INSKEEP: No action required: The thing you'd want to hear at this point.

We're a little bit past 11:30 in the morning Eastern time.

Mr. NAVIAS: Atlantis now 15 miles in altitude, already 16 miles downrange from the Kennedy Space Center, one minute, 40 seconds into the flight.

INSKEEP: We're listening to Rob Navias of NASA.

Mr. NAVIAS: Atlantis flexing its muscles one final time. Atlantis traveling almost 2,600 miles an hour, 21 miles in altitude, 24 miles downrange. Standing by for solid rocket booster separation.

INSKEEP: Oh, and now we're waiting for the solid rocket boosters to fall away. They will fall into the ocean, here. They'll break away. Their job is just about done.

PALCA: And those will be recovered, but I guess not used again because...

Mr. NAVIAS: Booster officer confirm staging, a good, solid rocket booster separation. Guidance now converging, the main engines steering the shuttle on a pinpoint path to its preliminary orbit. Two minutes, 20 seconds into the flight, Atlantis already traveling 3,200 miles an hour, 35 miles in altitude, 50 miles downrange.

INSKEEP: It's kind of astonishing when you begin to hear some the numbers. You heard Rob Navias talk about moving more than 2,000 miles per hour. We're talking about a shuttle that weighed, at liftoff, approximately 4.5 million pounds.

If you can imagine the kind of force you would need to lift the shuttle - which is a quarter million pounds and more - as well as all that rocket fuel, the incredible force required to get that moving at well over 2,000 miles an hour and into orbit, you get a sense of what an engineering achievement that this -what an engineering achievement the shuttle has been, even though the program has been described as a disappointment in many ways over the years.

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