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A boom in the night

The noise wakes people up at an ungodly hour. A frantic 911 call, and all is made clear: Oh, yeah. It's the shuttle.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2001


It rattled windows, shook houses and woke Tampa Bay-area sleepers in their beds. Many of them called 911 early Wednesday to report an explosion.

Emergency operators had a ready explanation for the 2:25 a.m. wake-up call: It was a sonic boom from the space shuttle Discovery, which passed about 120,000 feet overhead before it landed at Kennedy Space Center.

A thunderous boom resounds over Florida's Gulf Coast nearly every time the shuttle lands at Cape Canaveral, but it always takes people by surprise. All over the Tampa Bay area, 911 centers were inundated with calls.

"We got approximately a hundred calls over a 15-minute period," said Pinellas County emergency communications supervisor Kate Belniak. "People say they heard an explosion, and we tell them what it was, and they say, "Oh yeah, the shuttle.' "

Some area residents who recognized the sonic boom thought this one seemed especially loud.

"A cool night helps to create a louder boom as opposed to a humid night, which can have a muffling effect," said NASA spokesman Rob Navias.

The shuttle's sonic booms are waves of pressure that build up along the edges of the 100-ton spacecraft's wings in the same way a boat pushes water ahead of it. The release of pressure as the wave passes is heard as a sonic boom.

"Depending on atmospheric conditions and the shuttle's altitude, the percussion of the air against the fuselage creates a sound ripple that ends up being a sonic boom," Navias said.

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