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, 1...camera 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.

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