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Landsat NASASocial – Day 2 – The Launch

You might think that at 7.73 miles away, a rocket launch, especially an expendable rocket like an Atlas V, wouldn’t be all that impressive, but you’d be wrong.

I’ve seen two rocket launches, the first was STS-131 from about 6.9 miles away:

STS-131 Launch Viewing Location

I’ve described the experience of watching STS-131 launch in previous posts, so I won’t go over it again, but needless to say it was amazing.

The second launch was from about 7.73 miles away from the pad on the other side of the country in Lompoc, CA to watch an Atlas V rocket launch carrying the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (Landsat 8, LDCM) into space. I was invited to view this launch as a part of a NASASocial group. The day before, we toured NASA Facilities at Vandenberg AFB as well as three launch sites, two of which are still operational. On a cold Monday morning in February, we stationed ourselves in Providence Landing Park in Lompoc, CA to watch the launch.

Landsat Launch Viewing Location

We had spent an hour on Sunday afternoon hanging out with the rocket, so we knew the immensity of the thing, but at 7.72 miles away, it still looked a bit small. Our launch viewing accommodations were great! NASA and the Air Force had set aside for us a beautiful poolside patio and club house from which to watch the launch. If it had been a bit warmer, I’m sure that some of us would have ended up in the pool, but as it was chilly, we all stayed out.

From NASA’s Earth Observatory Blog, photo by Adam Violand

This launch was Vandenberg’s first public launch party, so there were facilities set up for the public and also an Air Force Rock band called Mobility playing for the assembled crowds. It was a great party and our hosts at NASA and Vandenberg outdid themselves. Also, we were able to bring our families to this launch, which was a truly awesome thing.

The day before, while at the launch pad, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden asked us to share the launch via our social media channels. He asked us, whether or not we liked the launch, to share our thoughts with feeling, so here I go…

Our view of the pad was spectacular. We were on a hill on the opposite side of the valley from SLC 3, so there was nothing but a couple of antennas between us and the pad.

01-SLC 3 from Afar

By the time we arrived on our viewing station, the rocket had already been fueled and the service structure moved back. After a couple of minutes of watching the rocket, we noticed it venting some gasses, which is normal for a rocket about to launch.

05-Venting Gasses

As the launch grew nearer, we all gathered near the white wooden fence to watch the launch. I was glued to Mission Clock on my phone for an up to date countdown and listening to the countdown which was piped through the speakers at the park. We were all glued to the sight of the rocket and waiting for the countdown to hit zero.

The day before, we had been warned that because this version of the Atlas V rocket wasn’t going to use any solid rocket boosters, it wasn’t going to leap off the pad. In fact it was going to light off and linger a bit before it flew into the sky. I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I was ready. As the countdown got close to zero, I remembered that it was important watch the launch, not just get pictures of it; it was important to EXPERIENCE the event, not just chronicle it.

As the clock hit zero, we all took a breath… and watched the first flames come out of the base of the rocket…

09-Launch 02

I watched the rocket lift off, I watched it linger above the pad, like everyone said it would, until seemingly, it decided to get a move on and head towards space. But at this point, THERE WAS STILL NO SOUND. In fact it took about 36 seconds for the sound of the rocket’s engines firing to reach our viewing site. When I watched STS-131 launch, the rumble that came was tremendous and I felt the heat of the launch. The Atlas V is a much smaller rocket, but the sound was still tremendous. At 7.73 miles away, the sound was so loud that my son covered his ears and the fence rattled.

Rockets don’t launch straight up, they start to curve and go down range (follow their flight path to get in to orbit), so a few seconds after the sound reached us, the Atlas V headed away from us, south over the Pacific Ocean. It grew smaller and smaller as it got higher and further away from us.

18-Headed South

As a rocket gets higher, there is less and less atmosphere to push against, so the vapors coming out of the nozzle, which were basically straight as it was leaving the ground begin to expand. Viewed through the lens of my camera, the effect is highly visible.

20-Expanding Contrail

It was a gorgeous day on the California coast. There was not a cloud in the sky, so our rocket gradually disappeared into the blue. It was an amazing experience, individually, as a family, and collectively as a group. My wife, who I was worried wouldn’t understand why rocket launches amaze me so, totally got it.

See my full Flickr set for the launch for all my pics.

I want to thanks NASA, USGS, the 30th Space Wing, Orbital Sciences, Ball Aerospace, and all of our hosts Aries Keck, John Yembrick, and many, many more for a wonderful experience. It was awesome beyond belief!

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The Space Shuttle Discovery is Now Part of the National Collection

I came across a video this morning, posted by the Smithsonian Institution on YouTube entitled, “Space Shuttle Discovery Delivered to the Smithsonian.” It’s a wonderful video highlighting Discovery’s flyover of Washington, D.C., removal from the SCA, and the ceremony in which it was inducted into the National Air and Space Museum.

The video includes excerpts from several of the speeches that day, including one from the speech of France A. Cordova, Chair of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. Once the transfer document is officially signed, she remarks, “The Space Shuttle Discovery is now part of the national collection.” I’ve watched this video a couple of times this morning, and I tear up at that line. As I’ve said before, the Space Shuttle Program is the only space program I’ve ever known. I’ve grown up with it and lived through its triumphs and tragedies. Through the use of the internet and social media, I’ve been privileged to join a community of people interested in space travel. I was lucky enough to witness the launch of STS-131 in person in April of 2010.

I know the history of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. I cherish the fact that humans have walked on the moon. I know how and why the space race occurred and I believe that it was a good thing for humanity. With that said, the only space program that I’ve experienced is the Space Shuttle. Whether on TV or the internet, I’ve followed missions and watched launches and landings. I remember exactly where I was both when I heard of the Challenger disaster and seventeen years later when I heard of the Columbia disaster. The Space Shuttle has been my space program and I truly treasure it. The end of the program has been coming for a while now, but the reality of it has just hit me.

Dr. Cordova’s remark that Discovery is now part of the national collection is true. She’s been retired and is no longer operational, but will be forever inspirational. I hope that Discovery will inspire others as much as she and the entire Space Shuttle program have inspired me. It makes me think back to the Brian Bassett cartoon from last year, What A Ride It’s Been.

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The End of the End Begins

Tomorrow morning, the end of the end will begin for the Space Shuttle Discovery. Discovery will take her final flight, not as a spacecraft, but as cargo on Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, leaving Florida for the last time, headed to the National Air and Space Museum.

One of my SpaceTweep friends @msengupta, posted last week on her twitter feed, “Just got an E-mail that started w/ “On April 17, 2012 space shuttle Discovery departs KSC for the last time.” Hit me like a ton of bricks.” It’s funny how different people get hit by different things. I was really hit when they powered Discovery down for the last time. Though they had stopped making the external tanks that she needed to fly to orbit years ago, shutting down her systems for the final time when it really hit me. The end of the Space Shuttle program has been coming for a while. President Bush announced its cancellation in 2004, but for subsequent seven years there were flight. It somehow felt like ti wasn’t really over. On Sunday morning, Discovery was loaded on the SCA for her flight. Tomorrow morning, the SCA will take off, do a low slow flyby of the launch facilities at KSC and Discovery will never visit Florida again.

My son and I were playing with our Space Shuttles last week and I was talking about how the Shuttles were meant to fly. In his three-year old desire to assert his independence, he said that the shuttles were not meant to fly, they were meant to be on the ground. He was laughing and playing as he said this, not knowing that the truth of his words was eating me up inside. When the Shuttles were built, they were meant to fly. They were meant to transport people and cargo from earth to orbit. Their purpose was to physically go to the heavens and show us what could be done when we put our minds to it. They were the manifestation of the ‘You Put an X Anywhere in the Universe” spirit that the American people dearly believed.

Now, their purpose has changed. No longer will they physically take a small number of people to the heavens, rather they will serve as a beacon and example of what people can do. My son was right, the Space Shuttles are not meant to fly themselves any more, they are meant to help us fly ourselves. Their purpose is to inspire the rest of us to fly in our own way.

It’s true, tomorrow marks the start of the end of the end, but I hope it can be a beginning. I hope that the four orbiters, who will together be seen up close and in person by millions of people each year, will help humanity fly.

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