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Monday, November 22, 2004

Swift Swings into Orbit

After a three-day delay, Swift was finally launched on Saturday, Nov 20. We watched the launch from KARS Park I, across the Banana River from launch complex 17 -- about 3.5 miles away, according to Yahoo's maps. (KARS is the Kennedy Athletic, Recreational and Social Organization. They have a nice little park there, with picnic tables and pavilions and an American Legion hall and real bathrooms.) There was a roach coach there to sell drinks and snacks, but we were there so short a time we didn't buy any. A group was also selling souvenirs (T-shirts, caps, and patches) at a table under the tent. Niles got his Christmas shopping done early, he told me.

There had been, we heard, 280 people on our Tuesday tour of the Space Center, but there didn't seem to be nearly that many on Saturday (many probably had to go home). They set up a tent on the river bank with a TV, which broadcast the launch while big speakers relayed the launch control chatter. At T-4 minutes there was a planned ten-minute hold, which got stretched a bit to 16 minutes. The launch therefore went off six minutes late, at 12:16pm EST.

As with most of the interesting events of my life, I saw this one through a viewfinder. Niles was forced to rely on his old-fashioned film camera, since his digital camera's best zoom only showed two little bumps on top of the river. I of course brought my beloved Canon AE-1, which I think is about 23 years old now. I was able to get a pretty good view with my new (to me; I bought it used) 75-200 mm zoom. I believe this was the first chance I had to use it. The new polarizer I had to buy came in handy: at one polarization the rocket looked like a gray smudge against the blue-gray sky; 180 degrees from that brought out the black-and-white paint job.

I bought Kodachrome 64 slide film to shoot it with, and then remembered that I'd be using the telephoto lens, and 64 wasn't nearly fast enough. I ended up using Kodak "High Definition" 400. I'd rather have had their professional grade film, but they don't sell that everywhere, and we never had time to go to a camera store in Florida. I had to use a 1/500 shutter speed, because I didn't have a big enough aperture for 1/1000. We'll have to see how they came out.

When the countdown got to zero, nothing much happened for a second. Then there was a cloud of smoke (or steam), and a little bit later, a flame. From the briefing film we saw, Niles and I both expected that the rocket would be up and gone too fast to take more than maybe two pictures, max, but I got off several before it became just a bright spark on top of the vapor trail (and I have no auto winder).

A little to my surprise, we were able to see the boosters separate. Well, I, personally, didn't see them, because I took my eyes off the viewfinder long enough to shout to Niles, "Hey, do you suppose we'll be able to see the booster separation?" and when I looked again there were three thin little trails falling back toward the earth. I had forgotten how many boosters there were; I think the Delta can take as many as nine, and I thought this had six, but there were only three.

After a minute or so there's no point in taking more pictures of the rocket, so we took picturesque views of the vapor trail against a palm tree and boat dock, and pictures of the crowd. The winds soon dispersed the trail, which was kind of disappointing. The day had been beautiful, with a few high clouds. Off over the ocean to the east were a bank of clouds which provided a fetching backdrop to the rocket, when the polarization was right.

And, after that, it was sort of an anti-climax (as you might expect). Some people hung around, but we left. There was nothing to see, and we could check on the web for subsequent events.

So far, everything looks good -- the spacecraft has separated and unfurled its solar panels. It'll take about a month to check out the telescope. See here for the events leading up to the launch, and here for a wrap-up article. It has a lot better picture than I got! (Of course, that was taken by someone from Boeing, on the scene. Next launch I'm getting one of these babies (and a mule to carry it).