A thunderous noise: York professor watches Atlantis lift off

Gary Jarvis, associate dean in York’s Faculty of Graduate Studies and a professor of earth science, was among those who travelled to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis with astronaut and York alumnus Steve MacLean on board (see Headline News). Three years ago, as Chair of the Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering, Jarvis was invited to MacLean’s planned May 2003 mission, which was scrubbed in the wake of the February 2003 Columbia disaster. This time, Jarvis was part of a York contingent that went to Florida for the first planned launch in late August, only to return home amid nearly two weeks of delays (see YFile, Aug. 31, 2006). Last week Jarvis returned with his family, and was finally able to watch Atlantis lift off from launch pad 39B on Saturday. Below is his first-hand account and photos of the event and the days leading up to it.

Success at last! Atlantis was launched with a York send-off on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2006 at 11:15 am. Our York delegation had shrunk a lot but we made our presence known. Unfortunately Gigi Lui, one of three graduates of the York/Sheridan Joint Program in Design who designed the shuttle mission patch, had to return home after Friday’s scrubbed launch attempt. Present with me at NASA’s Banana Creek VIP launch viewing site on Saturday were my wife Hélène Yaremko-Jarvis, our honeymooning son Michael Jarvis (a York PhD student in chemistry), and his wife, York alumna Andrea Jarvis (née Johnson). Two York friends of Steve’s from gymnastics days also watched nearby with their families.

Right: Space shuttle Atlantis on its way into space shortly after 11:15am Saturday, Sept. 9

At 11:15am, Atlantis leapt into outer space amid a massive cloud of smoke and fire and a thunderous noise. It is one of the most impressive sights imaginable. Six astronauts sat in the nose cone of the shuttle. No other human beings were allowed within 5 km of the launch pad. Steve MacLean and his five colleagues sat alone on top of millions of kilograms of rocket fuel, their fate to be determined by sophisticated electronics and massive combustion chambers.

At liftoff the noise from the rocket engines is one of loudest sounds ever created by man, second only to a nuclear bomb. Unlike the Apollo Saturn V moon rockets, which at lift-off moved at speeds of a few km/hour away from the launch pad, Atlantis seemed to jump upwards, passing the top of the launch tower at a speed of 150 km/h. After about 10 seconds all that was visible to the naked eye was a crackling ball of fire at the top of an enormous vapour trail. And so another six humans were hurled into space. As Hélène remarked, it felt like being a part of “Star Trek”.

An earlier launch attempt on Wednesday, Sept. 6, was cancelled during the night when a small pump for circulating coolant in one of the three fuel cells aboard the shuttle developed an electrical problem.

Without adequate coolant a fuel cell will overheat in nine minutes and shut down. These fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to generate electrical power for the shuttle’s computers and (as a by-product) drinking water for the astronauts. The coolant pumps are designed to run on three-phase electrical circuits but the problematic pump was only registering current in two phases. Although the pumps can run on two phases, NASA engineers wanted time to study the problem before proceeding.

This setback resulted in Thursday’s attempt also being cancelled since NASA had trouble tracking down the vendor of the pump, which was built in 1976, to obtain original circuit diagrams. (The company that manufactured the pumps had since been sold four times.)

Left: Gary Jarvis and Hélène Yaremko-Jarvis at Banana Creek viewing area with shuttle launch pad in background

By Thursday evening NASA was convinced the pump posed no risk to the safety of the mission, since only one of the three fuel cells needed to be fully functional in order for the shuttle to return safely from orbit. NASA concluded that the only risk was to the duration of the mission – if the fuel cell were to overheat, and shut down, the mission might have to be shortened. So we boarded the NASA bus on Friday morning in beautiful weather with clear skies and were taken out to the Banana Creek VIP observation site hoping for a Sept. 8 launch.

However, when the large orange external fuel tank was filled early Friday morning, one of four fuel sensors failed to respond to a simulation of an empty (dry) fuel tank. It continued to register “wet”, while the other three registered “dry”. Despite this, the count down proceeded to the T-minus-9-minute point, at which time a scheduled 45-minute hold began. During this hold period, NASA decided to scrub the Friday launch and try again on Saturday.

We all went back to our hotels very disappointed. They drained the external tank Friday night and when it was empty three sensors registered “dry”, i.e., empty, but one still registered “wet”. Fortunately, however, when they refilled the external fuel tank early Saturday morning all four sensors behaved properly. Even if the one sensor was still malfunctioning, NASA procedures would have allowed the launch to proceed after a one-day stand-down, designed to remove the pressure of the impending launch from the final decision. So Saturday morning at 8:30 am we boarded the NASA bus again and returned to Banana Creek viewing area.

While watching the launch, Jarvis and family were interviewed by a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, which noted their attendance at the Banana Creek viewing area in a column the next day:

Newlyweds Michael Jarvis (left), 28, and Andrea Johnson, 25, (far right) of Toronto were married a week ago in Canada. When Michael’s dad (Gary) was able to get extra tickets to the launch, they decided to come along to Florida.

They were able to get word to MacLean that there would be Canadian newlyweds at the launch. MacLean sent an e-mail back that said “I promise I will make the earth move for them,” Michael Jarvis said.