Q: What does a launch feel like?

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A: In a Russian Soyuz capsule, which is how astronauts who are part of expedition missions get to the space station, three people are crammed into a small space. The crew gets in the Soyuz about two and a half hours before launch. Once the crew is all strapped in, they perform a series of pre-flight checks of all the Soyuz systems. When the checks are finished, the crew waits while workers on the launch pad do the final rocket preparations.

Shortly before the time of launch you start hearing different noises below you and you know things are getting ready to happen. Then, it is as if a giant beast is waking up. You hear and feel the thumping and bumping of valves opening and closing as engine systems are pressurized. When the first engines light there is a terrific low frequency rumbling and things start to shake. Then the main engine lights and the rumbling and shaking get even louder. Slowly, slowly you begin to move up and away from the launch pad. But, very quickly you build up speed and the g-load, or the force of gravity or acceleration on a body, increases. You shake and rattle along and then there is a bang when the rescue system is jettisoned, another bang when the four strap-on boosters separate, and another bang when the nose faring comes off. Now the windows are uncovered and you can see light coming in. At the second stage separation there is another bang, and the g-load drops immediately. You go from about four and a half g’s down to about one and a half or two g’s. Then the third stage engine lights; you have a big push forward and the g-load builds again.

Eight and a half minutes after launch there is a loud bang and jerk and the last section of the rocket is jettisoned from the Soyuz spacecraft. And just like that, you are there– in space. It feels like you are hanging upside down in your shoulder harness. This is simply because there is nothing pushing you back into your seat anymore. Everything floats, including you.

Astronauts Answer Student Questions, NP-2011-06-040-JSC, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center

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