CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The space shuttle Columbia Sunday took off from the launch pad that sent astronauts to the moon, but never has there been a more spectacular blastoff of men into space.
The fire and fury generated by the shuttle's twin solid fueled booster rockets has to outrank the launchings of the awesome Saturn 5 moon rockets that flew 13 times in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
True, the Saturns' five first stage engines, burning kerosene with liquid oxygen, produced more takeoff power than the shuttle -- 7.5 million pounds of thrust compared to the shuttle's total 6.4 million pounds. And the Saturns, with an Apollo on top, were taller at 365 feet than the 184-foot tall shuttle.
But the tremendous plume of brilliant yellow flame hundreds of feet long unleashed by the twin solids was awesome. And the thunder-like noise of the shuttle's takeoff seemed even louder that the roar of the old Saturns.
The shuttle's three hydrogen fueled engines burst into life first, firing for nearly 3 seconds on the ground until they had reached 90 percent power. The orange-hued flame of the main engines was quickly obscured by clouds of steam from boiling launch pad cooling water.
Suddenly, with a mighty blast of yellow flame, the rubbery mixture of ammonium perchlorate and aluminum in the solids ignited and simultaneously, eight 3 -inch diameter bolts were severed and astronauts John W. Young and Robert L. Crippen were on their way.
The Saturn 5's took their time getting airborne, climbing with agonizing slowness. Not the shuttle. The whole assembly weighed 4,453,379 pounds at launch. The solids and three main engines produced 6,425,000 pounds of liftoff push.
That 2 million pound thrust margin pushed the Columbia into the sky quickly.
Although the solids were 30 feet apart, their exhaust merged into one pillar of flame. And the white smoke produced by the solids looked like an immense upside down geyser.
The fact that the shuttle is a winged vehicle mounted on an external fuel tank 154 feet tall, with the boosters attached to the side of the fuel tank, enabled observers to clearly see the ship roll around on its vertical axis as it climbed into the sky, tilting upside down for its race to space.