PASADENA, CALIF. — It finally happened. On August 23, 2003, the mission I've been working on for the last five years launched from Cape Canaveral. As I write, the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF) is careening through space, already many times farther away than the moon. The observatory is behaving beautifully, and it was an amazing experience to watch five years of my personal blood, sweat, and tears raised up on a 10-story high roman candle and blasted into space.
This has to be the most dramatic thing about working for NASA. For a week or so (depending on the Florida weather and any last-minute engineering tests) everyone gathers in Cocoa Beach, drives over to Kennedy Space Center for press conferences and web-casts each day, and (in the case of a night launch), tries to catch a quick afternoon nap. The week is guaranteed to be a roller-coaster of emotion, as everyone rides the cycles of elation (the launch is on!), disappointment (launch delay!), and anxiety (those thunderstorm clouds aren't heading this way, are they?). And since not everyone gets to attend a launch, I thought I would try to describe the experience.
For beginners, I have to say that I was rather charmed by Cocoa Beach, the town where most visitors to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) stay. It was a lovely coincidence that the in-flight movie on the way to Florida was "Down with Love," a movie set in the in the early 1960's where a character played by Ewan MacGregor impersonates an astronaut to gain the admiration of the character played by Renee Zellweger. It was fun to hear the jokes about all those "wild Cocoa Beach astronaut parties," as well as remember the mod-ish glamour that NASA had back then. In reality, Cocoa Beach is just the usual collection of shopping malls and fast food restaurants, sprawling out along a sand spit, but you can still find little Italian restaurant dives with candles in old wine bottles and signed pictures of astronauts behind the hostess desk.
KSC is a quick drive up the Florida lowlands from Cocoa Beach, and my first impression was just how huge a place it is. I promptly got lost and ended up driving around for about 20 miles (no kidding!) until I found the badging center. Like the nearby Disney World Resort, KSC is mostly undeveloped land, and it's quite a challenge to find the major buildings, let alone the deserted old launch sites that pepper the coast.
Most of the site is closed to the visiting public, and I, of course, was getting a thrill out of showing my badge to whichever gate guards I ran across. My assignment that day was to show up at the press center and take part in a web-cast, answering questions from the public about our soon-to-be-launched space telescope.
The press building is a wonderful place to contemplate America's space history, as it's located just behind the old grand-stand seating that overlooks the largest launch sites. I remembered pictures of President and Lady Bird Johnson watching the Saturn V rocket take off to the moon from those seats, and even though the launch pads and gantries are about three miles away from the stands, they are still a wonderful sight.
Of course, there can't help but be a bit of a bittersweet feeling to hanging around that place. Today the launch pads are empty. The space shuttle is still grounded after the Columbia accident, and we may never live to see the likes of a Saturn V again. Adding to that feeling, most of Kennedy Space Center has a weedy, overgrown look to it. Old launch sites have been left to crumble in the humid Florida air, and the even the plaque that marked this place as having been the site of the largest gathering of reporters and media people in history, was getting a bit rusty.
But make no mistakes, KSC is still vivid and inspiring. Right across from the press site is the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), which is, without a doubt, one of the most impressive buildings in the world. The VAB was originally designed to assemble an entire Saturn V rocket, which was 370 feet tall. Try imagining a building with a vast central hangar, large enough to stack a rocket the equivalent of 30 stories high.
I've never experienced vast internal space before, and it brought to mind a lot of science-fiction fantasies of the future, sort of what the inside of the Death Star in Star Wars might look like. The building takes up eight acres, is over 525 feet tall, and has the same volume as four Empire State Buildings. On the outside, it is one giant white cube, with a 110 foot-long American Flag running down the side. On the inside, there are twinkling lights, and levels of concrete and black steel trusses that seem to disappear into the atmosphere. A fully assembled space shuttle, complete with fuel tanks, only makes it a third of the way up to the ceiling.
But SIRTF's rocket, in fact, was not put together inside the VAB (I was only there because I had begged, pleaded and cried to be included on a VIP tour). The relatively puny 100-foot high Delta rockets are assembled on site, right on the launch pad they blast off from.
A few weeks before, the main body of the rocket had been hoisted up inside a huge steel gantry, and nine solid rocket motors were strapped around the side. The delicate payload of the SIRTF satellite was put inside a large, padded nose-cone called a faring, which sat above the smaller second stage of the rocket. I wasn't there when SIRTF was sealed inside the rocket, but we had all been following the procedure from our home in California, watching live web-cams and reading up-to-the-minute reports (to see some of the pictures we were looking at, go to http://sirtf.caltech.edu/picturegallery/imageweek2003.shtml )
As far as Delta II rockets go, the one that SIRTF launched on was as powerful as they get. It's not that SIRTF is all that heavy, but we had to launch it into a very high orbit, actually letting it escape from Earth's gravity altogether. The Earth and moon are just too warm for an infrared (or heat-light) sensitive telescope to work in without tons of thermal shielding, so in the end it was cheaper to build a smaller spacecraft, but throw it farther out into deep, cold space.
The Delta rocket would do this in several stages. First, six of the rocket motors would ignite on the pad, and burn for just a few minutes until they ran out of fuel and were jettisoned. Then three more rockets would ignite and push SIRTF well out of the atmosphere, again burning for only a few minutes. After that, the second stage, which is really an entirely separate, smaller rocket that perches on top of the main body of the Delta, would take over and give SIRT enough speed to slip away from Earth. In less than ten minutes the whole thing would be over, and we would know whether or not SIRTF had safely reached space.
And so the launch day finally arrived. By this time I had been flying around for a few days, keeping up with the status of our last-minute tests, attending receptions, giving so many interviews for local television, radio, and Web audiences that I literally lost count of them, and attending the official guest briefing, which was held rather dramatically in the IMAX theater at KSC's Visitor Center. Honestly, I was fairly wigged out by that stage. It had all started to feel unreal, as if everything was happening in a movie, not in reality.
The weather had been a bit iffy that day, with scattered but powerful thunderstorms wreaking havoc on launch plans (clear weather and calm winds are a must for any launch). But the storms had kept well away from the launch site, and the official word was that we were go for launch. The lovely people at the KSC Protocol Office had given all the official guests a parking pass for the launch-viewing area, a small plush doll in the shape of a smiling Delta rocket, and a strong-smelling wrist band that was supposed to discourage mosquitoes.
I drove over around midnight, following the signs to the guest launch viewing area. After a drive down a dark, swampy road (one guard warned me about wild pigs in the area), I finally got a glimpse of SIRTF's launch pad, located about three miles away across the Banana River. The pad and the sky directly above it were completely lit up by colossal search lights, which seemed amazingly bright even from where I was standing, miles away.
The launch pad and the rocket were tiny, bright, points in the distance; that was pretty much all you could see. But to give us more of a sense of involvement, NASA had set up a tented area with several television sets, showing close-up views of the pad, as well as the view from a camera mounted on the rocket itself (this is a recent development that allows engineers to monitor the launch from the rocket's point of view. It is also totally cool to see what things would look like if you were riding on the back of that beast.). There were coolers full of water bottles and sandwiches, and a loudspeaker system to let us listen in on the countdown.
It all went very fast. I arrived at the visitor site about 90 minutes before launch, and I thought the waiting time would drag by excruciatingly slowly. Instead, it seemed like I had just grabbed my water bottle and said hello to a few friends when it was time to launch. I will never really understand where that hour and a half went.
The main rocket uses liquid oxygen for fuel, and the tanks were allowed to vent great clouds of steam until just a few minutes before launch, when they were brought to their final pressure. And then the announcer started saying "10, 9, 8 ... " and everything really started to seem unreal.
The first thing you see is a light at the bottom of the pad that gets really bright, and then it just keeps on getting brighter until it lights up the whole sky. The tiny rocket, which looks just like the brightest firework in the world, slowly lifts off the pad on a column of smoke and steam lit-up by rocket fire. A few seconds later the sound hits you, a deep, firey rumbling that never gets all that loud, but seems to fill all the space around you.
One thing that surprised me is that you can see the plume of flame from the rocket for a very long time. After lift-off, the announcer kept tracking how fast the rocket was going, and how far away it was. In an insanely short amount of time, I heard him saying that the rocket was going 18,000 miles per hour, and was already 50 miles away. And I could still see the rocket plume clearly. How big, I wondered, was that orange wave of flame? It must have been miles across. The announcer made another count-down to main-engine cut-off, and sure enough, the plume disappeared from the sky.
After that we all huddled around the television sets as the booster rockets burned out and were thrown into the sea, a wonderful view from the on-board camera, and then waited to hear if the rocket would be picked up by our first tracking station, a boat out in the Indian Ocean. It was. Slowly, people started folding up the chairs and tables, and we headed back to our cars.
It's a hard experience to process. I am still amazed by the raw power of a rocket, and yet how incredibly precise it is. SIRTF was inserted into exactly the right orbit, the delicate telescope undamaged by its ride on top of a mountain of fire. And we do this routinely -there have been over 300 Delta Rocket launches since their inception in 1960, with a 95 percent success rate.
It's good to remember that we still do miraculous things; we are far more than just a dim extension of a glorious past. Maybe this launch will be the last one I ever attend. Maybe not. But as I headed back to the hotel, disoriented, tired, mildly elated and feeling a bit lost, I hoped I'd be back for more.