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BETWEEN the BOOKENDS of Liftoff and Landing . . .
Liftoff: The first stage is noisy and rough, like a high-speed train with square wheels. At about one minute into the flight, you go through the speed of sound and also reach the maximum of the aerodynamic forces and turbulence. The vibration becomes severe; you feel like a fly glued to a paint shaker. Then it smooths out a little until staging at two minutes, which jolts you like a head-on crash quickly followed by a sharp impact from the rear. In contrast, the second stage resembles a long, smooth elevator ride that accelerates ever faster as the mass of the propellants burn away. Eventually, you weigh five times your normal weight, which is not bad because your heart is at the same elevation as your head. But it’s hard to lift a hand, and you notice your cheeks and ears sliding towards the back of your head.
Landing: After re-entry you find yourself hanging on three good chutes, and you know you are almostback home. You also know you are back to your normal weight, even though you feel 3 times heavier. You splash down right on target two miles from the carrier. The sea is clam with no wind; however, you still end up in what NASA calls, Stable Two. That means you’re hanging upside-down in the straps bobbing up and down on the ocean in a closed damp cabin with the heat of re-entry soaking back in — the most uncomfortable part of the whole flight. In a few minutes, you inflate three air bags and pop upright. Once back on the carrier deck, part of you feels a little depressed. No matter how hard you push off, you can no longer float. And no matter where you go, you’re painfully aware that once again you have to haul along massive amounts of meat and bone. Rolling over at night becomes a real engineering challenge.