In the funds industry, the word launch usually means the time when a new investment vehicle is made available to investors. That’s when all the planning and effort taken to structure the fund, get the marketing and prospecting right, comes to fruition. Launch day.
In another world, away from concerns about finance, economics and investment strategy, launch means something similar – a bursting on the scene of a collection of effort of, maybe thousands of people – hoping that success will follow, and reward will be close behind.
But in this world, human lives are at stake. Sitting at the highest point on a fire-breathing rocket that will throw a crew at incredible speeds out into the cold of space. The launch I am talking about here is that of a space vehicle, thrust into the heavens by rockets that spew fire, smoke and noise.
It is now almost twenty-six years since I witnessed my first space launch but it’s a memory that is as vivid now as it was then – 01:50am on the 2nd December 1990, at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.
Looking back, I remember the excitement we all felt as the launch was on, then off due to bad weather, then back on again. Friends warned us “These flights can get cancelled right at the last moment due to loads of possible snags – bad weather, technical faults, many things.”
We could see the Space Shuttle Columbia out across the Indian River as we watched the preparations from Titusville, just off Federal Highway 1. It was early December so the weather was cold and windy – hence the meteo-copters flying over the launch pad, checking to see if the launch could go ahead.
The assembled crowd of tens of thousands of locals, tourists (like us), TV crews and other onlookers waited in anticipation, listening to the crew chatting with launch control over the local radio network. (God bless America’s open media..).
We knew the flight was to proceed when controllers wished the crew “God Speed” – and the helicopters disappeared from view, not wishing to be around when those monster rockets found their voices.
Night becomes day.
Being an early-morning flight, the darkness that was only seconds before, a blanket obscuring all but the very top of the Shuttle just three miles away, is suddenly lifted as the boosters roar into life. The transformation from darkness to light is a shock at first, you had forgotten the expanse of water that stood between our vantage point and the launch complex. The Indian River that we had crossed earlier that day as we visited the Space Center, was previously hidden by a cloak of night, but now no longer. It glistened and sparkled as millions of lumens of light energy burned our eyes for a few seconds until our pupils could adjust.
She’s off – go, you big white bird! Carry your precious cargo to the extremes of Earth’s atmosphere and beyond.
Then the noise hits you – a wave of sound energy, as you’d expect slower than light, shakes your whole body, rattling your internal organs and battering your ears. You cannot believe that human beings have willingly strapped themselves to the top of this fire-breathing beast as it inches its way from the launch pad before it disappears through the blanket of low cloud that had earlier threatened to stop this launch today.
Then, it’s all over. The Space Shuttle Columbia STS-35 has gone, far away from its earthly roots and carrying its crew and mission payload into orbit – to return just nine days later.
But it’s not really over at all.
Here I am then, some twenty-six years later and re-living a memory I shall (hopefully) never forget and sharing it with you today. As a child, I watched Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and others leave Earth for the Moon and other places and I never imagined I would ever witness such a spectacle.
My family and I were lucky enough on that day, to see a launch for ourselves and it is a marvellous experience – one that is made possible by our ability to travel and see the wonders of human endeavour and Earth’s natural beauty.
In a world which seems spoiled by so much conflict, it does one good to remember that there is still reason for wonder, adventure, bravery and technological genius that has one positive aim in mind – to better our understanding of the universe and our place in it. Sadly, Columbia and its entire crew perished after burning-up upon re-entry in 2003. Tragic seems an understatement.
My wife and I witnessed the last ever Shuttle launch in 2011 when Atlantis took its last steps out of Earth’s atmosphere so I count myself doubly-lucky in space-nut terms. I really do hope you all, one day, get the chance to see such a spectacle. Maybe you too will be sharing that day, in another twenty- six years.