What a Space Shuttle Launch REALLY Sounded Like

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.

13 Replies to “What a Space Shuttle Launch REALLY Sounded Like”

  1. THANK YOU Nancy! Nice advice… PLAY it LOUD! I yam so glad you did this. Donno if you remember? But I asked you if you could somehow get a high fidelity recording of that launch after you posted that you were going. Geeze… I just wish I could have seen one of the shuttles go up~~~~~~*

  2. Cool video, still nothing like the real thing though. Sadly, I was never able to witness a launch, but I have experienced a sound similar to a shuttle launch. I have been, on several occasions, maybe 200 feet from a B-1B Lancer throttling up for take-off. The sound is amazing, even inside a truck with the windows closed and earplugs in, it’s still louder than a rock concert. The vibration is just as intense, feels like the truck is going to rattle itself apart. I think a good sized earthquake is about the only good comparison to what I’ve experienced but to hear and feel that same sort of effect from several miles away, Nancy, you are truly lucky.

  3. Thanks for the post Nancy. It’s indiegun here – I edited the launch video together. Charlie Jones is correct in that the primary focus of my video was STS-121 (RTF#2 after Columbia tragedy). I got a lot of views this week from being featured on Reddit and received an email from the Discovery Channel today for an interview on (I think) Daily Planet’s ‘trending’ program. Unfortunately I got the email too late for show deadline so we space geeks might have missed a good opportunity to shine a bit brighter. Oh well. I’m just glad so many people are still interested in the space program. I know my video doesn’t do an actual launch proper justice but it might be the closest many will ever get. Thanks again for your kind words and keep looking at the stars!

  4. I enjoyed this, as I have never witnessed a Shuttle launch.

    But, if I ever did, I would not wish to hear the nonsensical hoots, shouts and whistles of the spectators…but just embrace the sound and vibration of the lift-off.

    Yea, yea, I understand the excitement of the moment and those who need to express themselves in such a manner, but I would prefer to enjoy the event reverent awe.

    Same applies to a solar eclipse.

  5. Thanks, Nancy. Quite informative about what we hear and what they do behind the scenes. And an AWESOME video, of course! I must have missed the earlier post on NASA TV, so will give it a read soon.

  6. Thanks for this. When describing an in-person launch I have always cited the sound of the launch as the biggest difference from tv. The 1st clip is a good reference.

  7. As a Cocoa Beach native and having seen 100-some Shuttle launches in person, this is easily the best audio I have heard. Well done.

    Too bad you were around to record a Saturn V launch. The sight and especially the sound of those birds made the Shuttle seem like a bottle rocket. They shook the ground and ripped holes in the sky as they slowly lumbered away from the surly bonds of the Earth.

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