Well, I made it back. I left 70 degrees and sunny in Cocoa Beach, Florida to return to 40 degrees and overcast with a sharp wind in Minneapolis, Minnesota. My trip to watch the MAVEN launch turned out to be a ‘bucket list’ event of the grandest scale. I decided to write three separate posts on my experience, the launch itself, my visit to the Kennedy Space Center, and my overall impressions of the trip, including a video of the launch.
MAVEN is on her way to Mars at 17,500 miles an hour. Yes, that is not a typo. And even at that speed, it will take 10 months to reach the Red Planet at approximately 200 million miles away.
The morning of November 18th dawned with a light haze and a forecast for late afternoon thunder showers. The launch window opened at 1:28PM EST so, it was a race with the weather as clouds and rain began to build in the northwest.
My brother Pat worked the night shift at the operations console where they monitored MAVEN’s status. This allowed the primary launch team to get some rest and be fresh for the launch. The Ops Manager gifted Pat with a parking pass that allowed five of us to watch the launch from the employees viewing area near the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) (NASA loves acronyms). The VAB is roughly four miles from the Complex 41 launch pad. This is the closest anyone would be when the Atlas V fired its engines. I would later be grateful for that distance between me and the rocket. When we reached the VAB, support tents were set up near the grandstand and guests were beginning to arrive. Through the many loudspeakers around the viewing area, we could hear the launch technicians working through their pre-launch checklists. Status reports came in from the fueling team as the liquid oxygen and kerosene were pumped into the fuel tanks. The crowd grew and lawn chairs were added to the grandstand and folding chairs already provided. Excitement filled the air as the crowd eagerly anticipated the launch.
At T-4 minutes the countdown entered a mandatory 10 minute hold to facilitate last-minute checks. Looking at the clouds continuing to build, I said to no one in particular, “Screw the ten minute hold. get the bird in the air.” Just before the end of the ‘hold’ the launch director called roll on all systems. He called each system name in a prescribed order and was responded to with a firm “GO”. Once all systems gave him the “GO”, he stated,”We are a go for launch.” The countdown continued.
At T-30 seconds the crowd went quiet. Everyone was on their feet and cameras were ready.
At zero we waited as nothing seemed to be happening. At four miles away there were trees covering the launch pad. The announcer said, “We have lift off”. And suddenly we saw the launch fairing above the trees. Then the bright tail of the atlas engine lit up the tree tops. A second later a crack split the air and was followed by the crush of the engine noise. At four miles it was uncomfortable. Any closer and it would have been painful. The roar pounded on my chest as I tried to keep my camera phone steady and focused on MAVEN. It was surreal to watch as MAVEN started toward the clouds. Slowly at first, it seemed to hang in the air, barely climbing at all. Gradually it accelerated as the bright yellow tail as long as the rocket itself pushed the spacecraft up and away from Earth.
We watched in awe for a few seconds until MAVEN disappeared into a cloud. Several more seconds passed before it broke out of the cloud and continued to streak upward. My hands were shaking so bad that I had to readjust the camera constantly to keep MAVEN in the viewfinder.
Sixty-four seconds after the zero count, MAVEN disappeared from view. The last visible sign was the glow from the engine blast fading away into the building clouds. Only then did the crowd begin to cheer. I found myself simply staring up at where MAVEN had disappeared with tears rolling down my face. I slid my phone into my pocket and looked around to see that I was not the only one overwhelmed by the experience.
I never thought this type of event would be so emotional. There are no words to describe the feelings I felt. I could not tell if it was because Pat was involved with the project, or if it was my patriotism, or possibly just the release of raw emotion drawn from me by the crush of MAVEN’s engine. Maybe it was a combination of all of them.
A man standing behind me had retired from NASA. He had witnessed the Gemini mission launches which put the first US men into orbit, and he had sat in the launch center during Apollo and Shuttle launches. This man who had witnessed almost the entire history of the space program had tears in his eyes.
I spoke to my brother after he put his video camera away and he said it was bittersweet to see something he had spent five years helping to create disappear into the clouds. He would never see MAVEN again.
Approximately 90 minutes after lift off, somewhere over the eastern coast of Australia, The second stage (Centaur) of the Atlas rocket fired and sent MAVEN out of Earth’s atmosphere and on its way to Mars. The status report came in that all systems were functioning nominally (that’s normal for us normal folks). It was party time for the project and launch teams. All I will say about partying with rocket scientists is this. It’s a lot like partying with a bunch of sci-fi/fantasy writers. However, there are a lot fewer piercings and less multicolored hairdos with the rocket scientists.
The good news for Pat is that he is transferring to the operations team and will be writing commands for MAVEN when she reaches Mars next September. With luck, he’ll be able to work with MAVEN until the mission ends in 2015. I hope he can.
Coming up next: My visit to the visitor’s center at the Kennedy Space Center. you won’t want to miss this!