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Recording the Space Shuttle

Capturing the Launch of STS-123

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Recording the Space Shuttle

Recording STS-123 - Space Shuttle Endeavour with Neumann Microphones in the foreground

Joe Shambro, About.com
Please check back for updates as this project evolves; the next scheduled launch of the space shuttle is May 12th, 2009 on mission STS-125. A special thanks to NASA for their generosity in access as well as the crew at the non-profit Internet Archive, for hosting the recordings under the Creative Commons license, free for all to download.

When talking about the most challenging recording projects they've heard about, many engineers I've spoken to have brought up one topic: recording a space shuttle launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

As I found out during my visit to Kennedy Space Center in March of 2008, hundreds of news media, camera operators, and audio engineers come together every mission to bring the sights and sounds of NASA's mission to your living room (and computer), not including NASA's incredibly dedicated and high-tech team of media production personnel working on their website and NASA TV. Their challenge is great -- bringing to life for those at home one of the most dynamic and exciting events ever seen.

While covering NASA's impressive onsite media activities, and after witnessing (and recording) a launch, I wanted to take on a special project: recording high definition, realistic audio recordings of these last few launches in the space shuttle program, and document how they're made and what equipment stood up to the test. It also gives those at home the ability to hear, in very high detail, the power behind NASA's shuttle fleet.

Preserving history

Most people are very familiar with the stunning images of the space shuttle leaving it's port in Florida; but one element of space shuttle launches has always been talked about: the incredible acoustic experience of hearing the shuttle take to the sky. And for the first time, we've got the ability to record audio in such stunning fidelity that anyone -- regardless of their ability to travel to the Cape to see a shuttle lift off -- can put on a pair of headphones and actually experience the power of liftoff.

Acoustic challenges

While always very exciting, the noise of the shuttle taking off changes from mission to mission -- and a variety of conditions factor into that. Humidity, wind direction and speed, and temperature all affect the ways in which sound travels, and specifically, how the acoustic field of a space shuttle launch reacts with the environment. During launch, the average sound pressure level at the Complex 39 Press Site, one of the closest areas where non-essential personnel are allowed, is 120 decibels A-weighted -- about the absolute maximum SPL of a loud rock concert. Closer to the launch pad, you get between 180 and 200 decibels of acoustic power -- enough to cause serious injury!

While these recordings are available in 24-bit, 96kHz resolution, fear not -- iTunes and most easily, freely available players can play the files in full resolution.

Recording STS-123

March 11, 2008 - 2:28AM

Download this audio at The Internet Archive

Space shuttle Endeavour lifted off on March 11, 2008 at 2:28 AM on a mission to the International Space Station, carrying the first component of Kibo, the Japanese Experiment Module. Despite being delayed from it's original launch date, the countdown and launch were flawless.

Endeavour lifted off in darkness, giving central Florida a spectacular light show.

For this recording, I chose to use a pair of Neumann KM100 microphones with the AK30 omnidirectional capsules. These microphones are very flat, and can handle very high SPLs, a necessity for this project. Omnidirectional capsules give a much bigger sense of acoustic space, and give much better bass response due to their non-directional characteristics. I paired the microphones with a Grace Design Lunatec V3 preamp and a/d converter -- a very popular choice with field recordists -- and made the recording in 24-bit, 96kHz resolution.

The Kennedy Space Center Press Site offers a fantastic open space for recording.

I set up near the right side of the famous countdown clock, and when the shuttle lifted off, the sound was incredible -- due to absolutely calm winds and low humidity, the noise carried quickly and came with great amplitude. The shuttle hit a very low cloud deck after launch, baffling some of the sound of it's ascent; still, the launch sound was extremely impressive given the calm atmospheric conditions. Those who heard the recording at the press site immediately afterward made the same comment -- it sounded very similar to the real experience, although the tactile bass vibration was noticeably unable to be reproduced.

STS-123 returned safely on March 26, 2008 after traveling 6.5 million miles around the Earth.

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