What a Space Shuttle Launch REALLY Sounded Like

by Nancy Atkinson on May 1, 2012

When I attended my first space shuttle launch, the most amazing thing about the whole launch experience may have been the sound. Being there at Kennedy Space Center is nothing like seeing it on television. When the sound waves travel across the 5.6 km (3.5 miles) from the launchpad to the KSC press site, the noise and sound just absolutely overwhelm and engulf you. You don’t only hear and see a space shuttle launch, you *feel* it! I heard astronaut Steve Robinson describe it as “it seems the air just isn’t big enough for the sound.” That sums it up pretty well.

Each launch I attended, I tried to record the crackling and popping of the rockets burning, but my audio equipment was just overwhelmed and the sound was completely distorted. This video is fairly close to what the sound is like, especially if you use a good sound system and turn it up, as the video’s creator, indiegun suggests. He used dozens of different video sources and several audio versions of shuttle launches mixed together to mimic as close to the real experience as he could.

He doesn’t say what launch this is, but it looks like Discovery’s final launch for STS-133 on February 24, 2011. I was there and the day was as beautiful and clear as this video shows. The sky was so clear, we could actually see the solid rocket boosters separate with unaided eyes. You can read my article about the launch here, and see our huge gallery of images of the launch here.

Below is a video that was taken from almost right where I was standing for the launch of Endeavour on STS-130 on February 8, 2010, and it captures the brightness of booster ignition for a night launch (which also overwhelms you) and it does a really good job letting you hear the loud crackling and popping of the SRBs without becoming distorted. This video is by @Spacearium.

When I was at KSC, I got a behind the scenes tour of the NASA TV studios, and I asked one of the technicians how they deal with the sound — since they have microphones and cameras so close to the launchpad. “It is a fine mix,” said Loren Mathre, one of the audio control technicians. “It is a different mix every launch depending on the weather, the temperature – sound travels at different levels, different speeds depending on what is in the atmosphere. The microphone we put out on the pad, we only use that when the sparklers ignite. Once the engines kick on you have to get off that immediately, or you have nothing but overdriven clipping noise. The pad perimeter mic, it overdrives immediately as well, but you have to ride that a little bit, so it’s a fine tuning of riding the fader and the trim pot until the microphone at the beach picks up the audio. Once the microphone at the beach picks up the audio, you’re pretty much good because the shuttle is so far away. That’s where you hear that low level crackling.”

You read about or hear (there’s a podcast, too) my behind the scenes tour here.


Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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