Sunday, May 27, 2018

Alan Bean (1932 - 2018)

He's not even famous enough to trend on Facebook, but he's one of only 12 in our species to have walked on the moon. Alan was probably one of the most "human" and least "macho" of the astronauts: While all of other the astronauts jockeyed to be first on the moon, Alan didn't care what number he'd be, so long as he got there. While the majority of the astronauts seemed to live their lives fearlessly, Alan was quite up front about his fears: I know in some interview, he talked about how on the windows of the Lunar Module, it was 1/4 inch of glass separating life from death at all times. And while the other astronauts spent what little free time they did working on cars and hunting and fishing, Alan liked painting, and he continued to do so throughout his post-Apollo life.

While some may read that and paint him in some "less" of a light than the other astronauts, he was anything but incompetent. He was a test pilot, logging over 7,100 hours in a profession that doesn't forgive error. He was the fourth person to walk on the moon in the Ocean of Storms, in Apollo 12 under his test pilot instructor, Pete Conrad, no less. He, Pete, and Dick Gordon (all deceased, now) were probably the most tightly-knit crew of all that went to the moon, having all been friends beforehand. He also co-saved the mission of Apollo 12. When lightning rode the spacecraft’s contrail all the way up and down to Earth, all onboard electronics scrambled, causing them to fly blind. A (now-famous) flight controller named John Aaron issued a command to "try SCE to auxiliary". Astronauts train for a lot of situations, but nobody trained for that, let alone knew anything about this so-called “SCE” switch. But Alan did: He found it, flipped it, telemetry was restored, and they went to the moon.

Alan went on later to command Skylab 3, which set a world record at the time for 59 days in space. He also served as backup commander of the Apollo-Soyuz mission, which famously involved the US meeting up with its formal space-rival, Russia, for the first time.

Rest in peace, Captain.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

New rocket launch, new coast

Old wounds 

Very few launches I’ve been to have been without some heavy amount of doubt as to whether the bird I’ve been hunting would actually take flight. Just two weekends ago, I was in California to watch a rocket launch to Mars, but although the rocket left the pad at the first possible day and moment that it could (each day for a month had a launch window a few hours long, but it didn’t need all that time), the ground was socked in with fog, and in a very tense battle against time, I made an about-face from the area and headed for the hills, arriving at a good spot only two minutes before liftoff. In my video, I’m still walking away from my car, dodging traffic as the orange fireball traveled southward across the night sky.

Fast forward two weeks later, now. An Antares 230 rocket remains poised on Pad 0A at Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia – the biggest rocket that flies out of there. The only other time I’d been here was to witness a tiny rocket shoot into a sub-orbital flight to deploy artificial clouds in the sky. Amazing as it was, it scrubbed ten times, only launching on lucky number 11. I live on the East Coast, but a pain-in-the-ass 5-6-hour drive from the facility. Excluding the days when it clearly was going to scrub for a weather, I drove down there a LOT. So many times that I’ve lost count, but probably seven of the eleven attempts, enduring a flat tire on the way that once scrubbed me and sent me home.  For me, seeing that launch became less about seeing the launch than saying “curse you” to fate, who clearly didn’t want me there.

"Eh, the hell with it"

So it was no surprise to me when the perfect launch time – Sunday morning (drive down Saturday night, drive back up Sunday morning, keep a few hours of your weekend intact) – came and went due to torrential rains. The launch had been scrubbed for Monday morning, with a friend’s friend on the inside saying mission planners were even eyeing a Tuesday launch. Even better, Weather Underground was calling for a 65% cloud cover over the area. My friend said I’d probably get a better view of the launch staying home.

Oh, and another thing: This thing was going to the International Space Station. I won’t sugar coat it: all things being equal, I’d rather see a launch going anywhere but to one of our orbiting satellites. A rocket headed to the ISS can’t just go at any time: It takes fuel to get into orbit, and it takes fuel to catch up to a satellite in space. When chasing something going 17,000 miles per hour, you don’t have a lot of leeway on when you can launch. NASA gives 10-minute launch windows for ISS launches, and they actually aim for the sweet spot, 5 minutes in, effectively creating 5-minute launch windows. During that time, there better not be anything wrong with the rocket: No leaky valves, broken fuel pumps, strange readings or other such tomfoolery. But there also better be good weather: No lightning nearby, and certain clouds are a no-no. Also, no stray boats or airplanes downrange of the rocket. They don’t want people in the area when things go boom. (And yes, this rocket has gone boom in the past.)

Ehh, the hell with it, I thought. I’ll go.

To borrow from the millennials, I have extreme FOMO (fear of missing out) when it comes to these things. I will never forgive myself for being so discouraged by freezing my face off at Kennedy Space Center one winter night (by night, I mean 4:00 am), having a scrub called, and booking a flight home that same day, only to watch space shuttle STS-129 launch the next night. I could’ve stayed, but I was so worn and jaded from multiple launch attempts of STS-127 that I thought it couldn’t possibly go off the following day…and it did.

Packed up the car with a rollaboard filled with one night’s change of clothes, and hit the road on Sunday night, with an augmented plan: because of the predicted cloud cover around the launch site, I would do something similar to Vandenberg: I’d watch from about 40 miles away. Cape May, NJ, the end of the Garden State Parkway, with an unobstructed ocean view down to the Delmarva Peninsula, would be my night’s target. I wouldn’t hear any sound from the launch (I think – I did hear sound 20 miles away from the Mars mission, so who knows), but I’d get a better view of the arc in the sky from the launch that I wouldn’t benefit from by being close. Also, it shaves a good two hours off the drive each way, which is no small deal when driving through the night.

The bad weather dilemma

Nearing the Atlantic City Expressway, an interesting update came from the website SpaceflightNow:
The launch weather officer at Wallops just briefed the Antares team, and the outlook remains favorable for liftoff at 4:39:07 a.m. EDT (0839:07 GMT).The forecast has improved somewhat over the last day, with meteorologists now predicting a 75 percent probability of favorable weather at launch time.A cold front is expected to pass through the Wallops Island region around launch time, bringing a slight chance of showers to the area.But most of the precipitation should be away from Wallops at 4:39 a.m., with a few clouds at 6,500 feet, a few cloud at 10,000 feet, and a broken cloud deck at 25,000 feet in the forecast.
This was a real dilemma: I made a decision not to head to Wallops specifically because the weather was gonna suck down there. If I went down there and the weather started trending badly, the 12-hour drive would be a dud. I decided to shot the moon; with launch at 4:45 am, the GPS time to Wallops at 4:05 hours, and it being five minutes past midnight, this decision had to be made immediately. And, it was going to be another nail-biter like last time. With no room for error, there was a reasonable chance we wouldn’t make it there on time.

I was to drive a few more miles, then take the Atlantic City Expressway westbound to the New Jersey Turnpike, then proceed from there as usual. The whole thing would add another hour to the trip. But oh, how strange:  Some recent construction on the Garden State Parkway resulted in exit numbers being switched.  I almost ended up in Atlantic City rather than Philadelphia!  With four hours of driving and little room for error, this was not needed right now.

The launch

The rest of the trip was uneventful, and ignoring requests from my stomach and bladder, I even made up some time.  Got into position about 30 minutes before launch, and surprisingly was the first one there!  (If this were Kennedy Space Center, people would have been in position 6 hours before that!)

Camera all set...5, 4, 3, 2, wouldn't record!  Not sure what happened, but I could not get it to turn on!

Well, I captured this a few seconds after lift-off:

And one bonus feature of it being a night launch, I was able to catch the second stage, too:

Am I sad that I didn't catch the whole thing?  Of course.  But a lot of people haven't seen a launch.  I've been so fortunate to have seen so many.  It's a privilege, and I'll never forget that.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

A Cinco de Mayo Launch to Mars, Part 2

I may have risen to consciousness twice during that long flight to LA.  Which is just fine, because last night, I drove from LAX to Ventura, CA, slept in a hotel for less time than it took me to drive to Ventura, and then hit the road at 1:00 am for the 4:05 am launch window for the Mars InSight lander from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

We knew what we were getting into

The weatherheads had predicted for days that this would be a foggy night, but usually in those same breaths, someone would say that launch would proceed as planned, anyway:  There were other ways to see through the fog.  But what that meant is that tonight would not be a slam dunk:  In fact, it might be anything but, because many-a-website would tell you the optimal places to see a Vandenberg launch, but none tells you what to do when fog tops 700 feet in the sky.

I love driving up the 101 in SoCal (when it's not on fire).  Emerging out of the mountains from the 405, viewing the vista ahead, the ocean, the fields, the distant mountains...too bad you get almost none of that at night.  Sometimes, it's hard even to know that you're driving right up on the coast.  Enter CA-154:  A long, windy road up a steep mountain and through the Los Padres National Forest.  (A few weeks before I got there, two cars smashed into each other, each traveling at highway speeds.)  After traveling upstairs forever, when you start to wonder if you should worry about air traffic scraping the sunroof, you begin the inevitable long descent into Santa Barbara wine country, where admittedly, I've spent many a delicious day at various points in the past.

My dad was with me in the car.  (He didn't want me to fall asleep behind the wheel.  Also, he's a space nut like me.)  On this night, the descent down the hill required a descent into the fog.  It was at this point that we realized that there was a good chance we weren't going to see anything at all, but my dad was all too optimistic for me and urged me forward.  So I pulled over on the road in the middle of some farmer's crop and asked my dad to get out of the car and count all the stars he could see.  "Zero", he said.  With a 4:05 am scheduled launch, and at 3:10 am, in the middle of a vegetable field just inches from Vandenberg, we made the painful decision to U-turn, backs to the action and headed, full steam, away from the site that would soon be bathed in surreal-bright sodium orange from the booster rocket in 55 minutes.

The misguided trip that had us turn back and head almost
halfway home.

First thought was to head out to the coast toward Gaviota, but that attempt was met with fog.  So we boogied on up to CA-154 for the mountain top.  Unfortunately, it is an exceedingly long journey to the top, and painful when you know that a rocket launch is imminent and 10 minutes away.  Make that 9 minutes, 8....


3:58 am, 3:59, 4:00....  My dad pressured me to pull over every minute so he could setup shop with his camera, but the problem was, we were on the wrong side of the mountain.  Eventually, I caved at 4:01 am, stopping at a scenic overlook that couldn't have more trees in the direction of the launch.  Sheeyit!

Hit the road again...4:02 am, 4:03....  Finally, at 4:03 am, we reached the top of the hill, parked, and scrambled out of the car.  4:04 am....

Launch time

No time for a tripod.  Oh, and we didn't know really where to look, either.  But shortly, a corner of the sky started oranging up.  With camera in hand and rolling, I was still dodging traffic coming down the mountain.  Oops!  Also, my dad and I had an agreement not to talk while it happened, but if you scroll to the beginning of my video (which I've set to start at 0:01), you'll hear me politely telling him to STFU.  :)

What started as a menacing, orange circle quickly grew a tail and glided at approximately airplane-apparent speed, across the night's pitch.  Eventually the tail disappeared as the booster gave way, and the rocket crept closer and closer to orbit before finally disappearing, hundreds of miles away.

Rumble, rumble....

Forgive the video -- I didn't have time for a tripod, and in the first minute, I was still dodging traffic (that you can hear in the video) while trying to get up the hill and keep the rocket in frame (that last part I did with mixed success).

Unfortunately, the coolest part of the launch happened after I turned the video off:  A low, continuous rumbling starting coming in, vaguely from the direction of Vandenberg.  At three minutes away, that's ( 1225 km/hr speed of sound at sea level × ( 1 hr / 60 mins ) × 3 mins ) = 61 km/38 mi away!  Not bad for turning around 50 minutes before that.

Closing thoughts

My favorite launch certainly can't be one seen from 61 km away.  And this definitely was not my favorite.  But there was my first Vandenberg.  ...but on the other hand, there will be more Vandenbergs, and surely one or two launches in the future where I can actually see the launch pad!  But what made this really special was that this payload is headed to Mars!  Mars!!  It's May right now and I'm busy making summer plans.  This thing, faster than anything terrestrially bound, will be (hopefully) touching own on the Red Planet two days before they light the Rockefeller Christmas tree.  And that journey is only that "short" when the planets are close together!

The world is a cool place.  Most people take for granted that we can do things as extraordinary as this.  I hope I never lose the childlike wonder and curiosity that make things like this so special.

Friday, May 4, 2018

A Cinco de Mayo Launch to Mars, Part 1

I've been to...gosh, I've seen so many launches that I don't even know how many I've seen.  Approximately 8 shuttle launches, Ares 1-X, the Orion capsule test, a couple of Falcon 9s, Wallops Island's sounding rocket.  But I'm on my way to my first launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Why Launch in Florida or California?

Since we're on the topic of California, have you ever thought about why the US launches rockets from where we do?  Not many people think about this.  Florida's arguably the lightning capital of America:  You go down there in the heat of summer and you can pretty much set your watch by the afternoon thunderstorms.  (Apollo 12, the one after the famous Neil and Buzz landing, got struck by lightning on the way up.)  I can't even begin to tell you how many scrubbed launches I've been to in Florida due to weather.  So why launch from there?

Well, for one thing, ideally, you want to launch from a coast*.  Rockets are essentially controlled bombs, and sometimes, rockets are uncontrolled bombs.  And when they go out of control, you don't want their shrapnel landing on populated areas.  Or even un-populated areas, for that matter:  A lot of unmanned rockets contain small nuclear fission reactors on them because fission power is powerful and lightweight and perfect for exploring the solar system when no humans are around.  (Did you watch or read The Martian?  Recall when Mark Watney dug up the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator to heat his martian buggy and jokingly "cited" from the astronauts' manual:  "Lesson #1:  Never dig up the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator.")  You don't want bomb-scattered radioactive material landing on land.

* Note:  Russia doesn't really have the option to launch from a coast, so they launch over a huge patch of nothingness land.

Another consideration when launching a rocket:  The Earth's rotation gives you free speed.  Earth rotates from east to west, and if you launch from west to east, you're going against its rotation, therefore picking up that rotational velocity for free.  If you stand at the South Pole, you're barely rotating at all.  But if you move to the equator, you're now at the fastest point of rotation.  So, the closer to the equator you launch, the faster you fly.  Hence, Florida.

So why California?  Well, we already know that California has a big coastline, so there's one reason.  But Vandenberg allows for something else:  You can launch rockets into polar orbits, ie. orbits where you fly over the North and South Poles.  The International Space Station flies at an orbital inclination of 51.6° with respect to the equator.  (The "why" of that is a really cool story but too long for this already-long post.)  So if you point your space shuttle at 51.6° northeast when you launch, your rocket will never get past 51.6° North or South latitude.  If you want a polar orbit, you must launch due North or South.  Satellites that survey the entire Earth get polar orbits.  Some spy satellites get polar orbits.  So that's why we use Vandenberg:  You can fly a rocket due south over water into a polar orbit.

Mars InSight Lander

The launch I saw is called the Mars InSight Lander.  As its name suggests, it's not a spy satellite:  It's headed to Mars as I write this blog post.  So it didn't really need a polar orbit.  But the reason why it launched from Vandenberg is because the launch manifest is too crowded at Kennedy Space Center right now.  This rocket has about a month's worth of launch windows to try to get to Mars, and if it doesn't go up before June, we'd have to wait another 26 months for Mars and Earth to align themselves to make a good launch.  (In fact, it was supposed to go up in 2016, but oops:  One of the instruments wasn't holding a vacuum in cold tests, so it was postponed until now.)  You want an un-crowded launch manifest so you can do this as many times as it takes to get off the ground.

InSight is different than the other robots we're sending to Mars.  Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity are all rovers acting as geologists, taking soil samples and analyzing them.  InSight is more of a seismic geologist:  It's measuring earthmarsquakes to determine what kind of plate tectonic activity there is, if any, drilling 16 feet into the Martian soil to understand the temperature of Mars's interior, and measuring the "wobble" of Mars's north pole to make infererences about the planet's core.  These measurements will not only help tell the tale of Mars's birth, but our own.

My Own Journey

Tonight, I'm flying out to Los Angeles, renting a car, driving two hours to a hotel, sleeping for less time than my drive, and then headed out into the foggy night to find Vandenberg, setup a camera, and hopefully capture the launch of this one-time event.

I've been to so many scrubbed launches that I just have to accept them as the cost of doing business.  But in this case, because I haven't taken any time off from work for this, I only have two shots for this to work:  tomorrow and Sunday.  May good fortune by on our side.