By the evening of 28 February, however, and in light of the fact that the failure of the bearing at 500 Celsius was a relatively minor concern, the Mission Management Team cleared STS-109 for launch early the following morning. Altman led his crew out of the Operations and Checkout Building at 7:45 am for what was essentially a
picture-perfect countdown, the only concerns being a possibility that a broken deck of clouds could form below 2,400 m and violate launch safety rules.
''The launch count was just about as smooth as it could be,'' Grunsfeld wrote later in one of his NASA-authorised journal entries for the mission. ''Lying on our backs, fully dressed in our orange 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 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 [SRBs].
''In the last six seconds, the main engines announced that they were ready to rock and roll. Then, in an instant, the [SRBs] lit and we knew we were getting outta 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.''
On the ground, it was 11:22:02 am GMT when Columbia thundered aloft, precisely on the opening of a 62-minute 'window' to rendezvous with Hubble in two days' time. In fact, directly overhead - some 580 km above Sarasota - the telescope itself orbited, patiently waiting for its next group of human visitors. The effect for spectators of Columbia's ascent was one of lighting up the pre-dawn darkness and knifing straight through a thin layer of clouds. Passing through them helped Grunsfeld to reset his sense of time back to normal, ''as I was able to grasp the velocity at which we were travelling. 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 three times the force of gravity! 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-a-half minutes after we had started, the engines shut off and we were in orbit.''
Back on terra firma, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, attending his first Shuttle launch after being in the job for just over two months, was flabbergasted. ''It was something that was a sight to behold - absolutely extraordinary!'' he said. Added NASA Launch Director Mike Leinbach: ''It was just a beautiful launch.''
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