T minus five minutes. T minus two minutes. I start to feel a buzzy anticipation in my fingertips, a bit like stage fright. Time moves differently at this point, and I've read that it does for the astronauts as well. Each second seems to take forever, yet there is also something merciless about the way the seconds keep spilling forward. The time it takes to speak a sentence or check a camera setting feels like it should have taken thirty seconds, but when we check our watches again, only two seconds have gone by.
T minus thirty seconds. The announcer starts chanting the countdown at fifteen, and we pick up the count and chant along with him. Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. These words, spoken with such reverence and emphasis, are part of the poetry of spaceflight. But when we get close to zero, the countdown stops.
A general groan goes up. The announcer explains that there is an electrical problem.
There is only a ten-minute window each day during which the rotation of Earth brings Cape Canaveral within rendezvous range with the space station; if Discovery can't get off the ground within this launch window, we'll have to wait until tomorrow for the next attempt. I will have to tell Chris I'll be away for one more day; I'll have to find someone to cover another day of classes. We lean toward our phones and turn up our car radios and squint through our binoculars at the horizon while those ten minutes slowly tick away.
When the time is nearly up, we see a light on the horizon. Only two seconds before the end of the window, the main engines ignite, creating an orange glow. Then the solid rocket boosters. The stack lifts itself, silently at first. The sound takes longer to travel the fourteen miles than does the light, so the first bright moments of launch always have a silent-film majesty.
And now the sound comes toward us: bassy, crackly, like a fireworks display that never lets up. The sound goes right through you, and if you have become too emotionally involved in the space program, this sound will make you cry. It's the sound of American exploration, the sound of missiles put to better use than killing or threatening to kill, a sound that means we came in peace for all mankind. The man from Ohio is trying to watch through binoculars and shoot video of the launch with his phone at the same time; his wife is exclaiming "Oh my God! Oh my God!" over and over. We cry and tip our heads back to trace the bright light up.
At T plus two minutes, the solid rocket boosters drop off. Like others who have watched the Challenger footage too many times, I'm never fully satisfied that a space shuttle has launched successfully until I see with my own eyes those boosters drop off safely and arc away. From this distance, Discovery now looks mostly like a flare of flame followed by a streak of white arcing up into the sky, a streak that seems to curve inward with the bowl of the heavens until it's almost directly overhead, where it slowly disappears into a single point like any star.
Excerpt from "Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight," by Margaret Lazarus Dean. Copyright 2015 by Margaret Lazarus Dean. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, graywolfpress.org