The Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew of seven astronauts rocket into the predawn sky at 6:22 a.m. Eastern time on March 1, 2002.

Courtesy NASA.

The launch count was just about as smooth as it could be. Lying on our backs, fully dressed in our orange launch suits and parachutes, the wait for liftoff was not particularly comfortable. As the count progressed it was clear to us that any concerns about clouds or winds were not going to stop our trip up to the Hubble. On board Columbia we worked through our procedures down to the last couple of minutes. Then it was up to the computers on Columbia, the main engines and finally the solid rocket motors. In the last six seconds the main engines announced that they were ready to rock and roll. Then in an instant the solid rocket motors lit, and we knew we were getting out of town in a hurry.

Incredibly for a few seconds, time seemed to slow down. We were clear of the tower, executing a slow roll to the heads-down attitude, when out of the front windows I saw a mass of billowy white clouds in our path. The light illuminating the clouds was coming from the fiery exhaust of our rocket engines. We cut right through the clouds and as we did my time sense adjusted back to normal, as I was able to grasp the velocity at which we were traveling. The clouds went zipping by and we were again heading upward into a black sky. A few minutes later the Sun burst into the cabin as we ascended into daylight, and we rolled heads-up for the remainder of the ascent.

In the final couple of minutes we were accelerating at 3 times the force of gravity. Our pilot, Duane Carey, commented on how hard it was to talk, although I saw he had no trouble reaching for items against the pull of the engines. Eight and half minutes after we had started on planet Earth, the engines shut off and we were in orbit on our way to the Hubble Space Telescope. The familiar sense of free fall greeted us and put a smile on my face.

The first day on orbit was a race to change our rocket into our spaceship home in space. The seats were folded down and stowed, parachutes removed, and we got out of our spacesuits. We opened the payload bay doors, doing a check to make sure they would close again, since Columbia had been through major maintenance prior to our flight. On board Columbia we set up our eight-computer network, one of which I’m typing on now. We all tried to get a bite to eat before going to bed, and I had my traditional peanut butter and raspberry jelly sandwich.

The final ritual of the day was to set up our sleeping bags, some on the ceiling, some on the floor, others on the wall. The commander, Scott Altman, and pilot slept on the flight deck. I slept with my legs in the airlock and just my head sticking out through the hatch.

For the crew on Columbia it was a fine day and a good night.


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