KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. The sun came out early down here on Monday morning.
The final nighttime launch of the Space Shuttle program lit up the Cape Canaveral area for several minutes. The locals down in Cocoa Beach about 10 miles south from here said they also heard Shuttle Endeavour roar into orbit at 4:14 a.m.
For first-timers like me, the sun-like affect of a pre-down launch was astounding. There's a good reason: NASA says the combustion gases of the Shuttle's solid rocket motors are about two-thirds the temperature of the surface of the sun (6,100 degrees F).
Then there is the sound -- a wall of sound, actually. We were told at the NASA press center about 2.5 miles from Pad 39A to brace for the sonic wave generated by the Shuttle's three main engines. It hits a couple of seconds after liftoff. First there is the blinding flash of light, then the thrust billowing up on all sides and finally the sound wave (despite the literal damping of sound by a Sound Suppression Water System on the pad) .
I swear it made the cuffs on my pants flap.
Once the Shuttle commences its roll program maneuver and throttles up to reach orbit, things gradually begin to quiet down. The observer, mouth agape, next hears all the car alarms going off in the visitors' parking lot. (You can hear the car alarms on this video.)
Nothing like has been seen or heard around here since the heyday of Apollo in the late 1960s.
Those who have flown in space often chastise the media for focusing on the trivial. Still, the sight of the Space Shuttle Endeavor climbing through the pre-dawn sky on Monday (Feb. 8) carrying the last major piece of the International Space Station in its cargo bay was like nothing I've ever seen—or felt-- before.
It was worth the wait after the previous day's launch attempt was called off with nine minutes left in the countdown due to low clouds.
After the thunderous liftoff, Endeavor climbed steadily through low clouds before turning north so that its orbit lined with the Space Station. (Endeavour docked with the station on Wednesday and the crew is preparing for the start of three space walks.) The arc of its flight was visible in the pre-dawn sky for more than seven minutes, about the amount of time needed to reach Earth orbit. NASA officials said they had a visual track on the spacecraft all the way up to Cape Hatteras, N.C., about 550 miles to the north.
With the Shuttle program nearing its end and much uncertainty facing NASA workers here, you could sense their pride in having put on a helluva show.
While it wasn't the 7.5 million pounds of thrust generated by the Apollo Saturn V, I'll not soon forget the pre-dawn sunrise generated by the Shuttle's engines or the roar of their 6.2 million pounds of thrust.
For more on the Shuttle launch and the future of U.S. manned space flight, see our slideshow from Cape Canaveral.