Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Twenty-five years ago today, I heard the loudest sound I have ever heard. I've heard the sound a couple of times since, but the impression that first time made on me a couple of decades ago will stay with me for the rest of my life.

I was living in Daytona Beach, Florida, enjoying an extended period of excess and debauchery. Yes, I was a musician. Most of my life has been spent with that as a primary label, and at that time, I was reveling in being young and attractive and talented and living in the moment.

However, my existence has been mostly traveled on two seemingly unrelated but parallel paths.

I'm also a lifelong science geek. Even during my most depraved days, my love for science has remained equally as strong as my love of music. As it happens, the two were instilled in me within weeks of each other.

In 1957, my father took me outside one dark spring night and let me look through his binoculars at something more magical and wonderful than I had ever seen. Comet Arend-Roland was a popular night-sky viewing event that spring, much like the recent apparition of Comet Hale-Bopp.

Looking at that ghostly, shrouded blob of light in the binocular eyepieces, I was hooked on the stars for good. My interest in astronomy rapidly metastasized into an interest in the burgeoning exploration of space. I knew the Mercury 7 better than I knew my neighbors.

When I moved to Daytona Beach in 1980, I knew I was in a great place to satisfy my two biggest lusts, music and space science. The best part? The United States was about to embark on a new chapter in the manned exploration of space.

The Space Transportation System, better known as the Space Shuttle, was the first true, reuseable spacecraft in the world. It was a Lear Jet in comparison to the Wright Flyer of the Mercury capsules, and was an amazing quantum leap in the technology of manned space flight.

On April 12, 1981, I drove to what was at that time still named Cape Kennedy, and managed to get about as close as uninvited civilians were permitted to get to the launch apron, about three miles north of where our first real spaceship was going to take its maiden flight. With radio in hand broadcasting the countdown, I stood on the roof of the car, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean a couple of hundred yards away, and when the Launch Controller said "ignition," the sound of the world disappeared.

Sound itself didn't disappear. The universe was permeated with a low-pitched roar laced with a crackling like a campfire made of a stack of sequoias, and the shuttle Columbia with Robert Crippen and John Young flying it, slowly lifted off the lauchpad, a light too bright to look at glowing at the top of a rapidly lengthening pillar of smoke.

The very ocean vibrated. Patterns of wavelets on the calm Atlantic waters of that day made the ocean look like a gigantic ultrasonic jewelry cleaner.

I put my fingers in my ears. The sound did not diminish, it was as if it were coming from inside of me rather than from this accelerating and shrinking white bird at the tip of the massive cloud of white mist trailing behind it.

Within a minute and a half, the sound reduced to the roar of a large military jet and then faded away entirely as the shuttle accelerated east across the ocean and disappeared from view.

I saw a few more shuttle launches while I lived there, and while the experience never changed, the shock of that first time was unrepeatable. It's difficult to believe that sound can be such a physical phenomenon, as sound in our daily life is so much more restrained and controlled than the noise of millions of horsepower of energy being released in a short time.

Sadly, the shuttle Columbia is no more, having suffered catastrophic structural failure during re-entry a few years ago, killing seven brave astronauts in a brief blaze of light and heat witnessed by the entire world.

However, their comrades carry on in their memory and in their spirit. The state motto of Kansas is "Ad Astra per Aspera," Latin for "To the Stars Through Difficulties."

It is also a fine accolade for these courageous explorers living in our time.


Blogger Ronni said...

Twenty-five years in the blink of an eye!

I was seven days short of giving birth to my younger daughter, so the shuttle had less impact than Braxton-Hicks contractions.

You describe the event so well!

7:31 AM  

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