President’s update: Capturing the feel and wonder of science

With thanks to ASC President Craig Cormick

So sure you can research all you want about a NASA rocket launch and find out data on thrust and payload and the science of rocket flight and so on – but none of that really tells you what a NASA rocket launch FEELS like.

And that goes something like this:

Mid-afternoon you park your car on the southern shore of the Banana River, just north of the Port Canaveral Marina in Florida. There are already cars spread out all along the shore and a bit of a community picnic feeling is developing. Right across the water, about 12 kilometres away you can see the tall buildings of the Kennedy Space Centre. One of them will be the rocket that is going to be launched tonight.

Closer to dark more and more people arrive. People pull up and get out chairs and blankets, and walk back and forward talking to each other excitedly, about previous rocket launches. Some people are veterans of over 40 or more launches and some are there for the first time like us.

As sun sets in a beautiful pink glow the particular launch gantry for tonight is illuminated by a large spotlight. People might tell you that night launches are best seen across the water, and that the observation station over at the NASA facility isn’t even as good as this.

People keep talking and swapping stories, until about 10 minutes to the launch window. Then everyone is quiet. We hear people about us calling, “Launch is go!” Then, “30 seconds.” “15 seconds.” “Ten seconds.” Kids along the row, who have been practicing the 10, 9, 8 countdown all evening now all join in loudly shouting the numbers in unison.
Then the shout is “Lift off!”

All eyes are fixed on the gantry across the dark water. There is a sudden blossoming of light, as if you are watching a film frame that has gotten stuck to a projector and burnt to white.

The light spreads out into a ball and then, slowly, you see the rocket start to lift. The ball of light lengthens into a flame shape as the rocket rises. There is a collective exhalation as it starts to speed higher and higher into the sky, seeming to rise over your head like some ascending divine star, the fire ball contracting to a round ball again behind the rocket.

And it is silent. Strangely silent. But as the rocket rises the rumble comes across the river, building and building like no other sound you’ve ever heard, reverberating in your chest. You tilt your head back and the rocket climbs higher and higher, the fireball getting smaller and smaller, as it joins the stars. Then you close your eyes for a moment to imprint the feeling and awe and wonder of it deep into your memory, as those gathered around start applauding the godamned technological achievement and marvellous wonder and everything of it.

Dr Craig Cormick
President, Australian Science Communicators

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