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From Issue #35 January 30, 2014

On the Road with New Space

A race to a late-night launch of a new kind of mission.

By Chris Krupiarz Twitter icon 

I’m not sure I’m going to make it. I am crunched into a too-small seat on an Accomack County school bus that is lumbering down Chicken City Road in Chincoteague, an island town an hour-and-a-half drive from the southern tip of the eastern shore of Virginia.

A gray-haired couple in front of me watches the passing homes, the facades of which struggle daily against the effects of salt thrown in the air by the nearby Atlantic. Across the aisle, a woman with a multicolored crocheted bag over her shoulder listens to the countdown on her phone.

We are late to the viewing site for the launch of NASA Ames Research Center’s LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) mission, which is taking off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. The spacecraft is six miles away, across the marshlands of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, sitting atop an Orbital Sciences Minotaur V.

Stark against the black sky, the rocket stands on launch pad 0B, a short hop away from the sandy beach. Spotlights make the Minotaur glow like the granite monuments to the northwest, in Washington, DC.

I am just shy of completing a three-hour trip from my home in Maryland to watch the launch. LADEE is moments away from starting a 240,000-mile voyage to the Moon that will take it a month.

There are two minutes to launch.

Artist’s conception of LADEE above the moon. Image by NASA Ames/Dana Berry.

Countdown

I had made a last-minute decision to drive down to Chincoteauge. It was a Friday night, my kids were asleep, and the sky was cloudless  —  perfect for launch. Although the crew at Wallops had been igniting rockets since 1945, LADEE would be the first launch destined to travel beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Wallops is one of several sites — including Hawthorne, California; and Sierra, New Mexico — that are new to sending stuff into low-Earth orbit and beyond, expanding the potential for such launches.

Arriving near Wallops around 11:00 pm for the 11:27 pm launch, I drive onto the Chincoteague Causeway, where families camp with their minivans alongside the road and set up cameras as the clock ticks down. I debate stopping here. With so many people lined up, it must be a good view. However, I decide to travel onto the island. After all, there is nearly a half hour until launch.

As I enter Chincoteague, I see a sign emblazoned with yellow lights directing visitors to the parking lot of Chincoteague Island High School, where volunteers drive shuttle buses to the viewing sites. When I turn in to the lot, I am next in line to park. In front of me is a Ford 150 pulling a large fishing boat  —  a common sight this close to the Atlantic. Based on the increasing intensity of the parking attendant’s hand motions, I suspect a discussion similar to this underway:

Attendant: “You can’t park here.”

Boater: “I can park here.”

Repeat.

Eventually the driver relinquishes his position.

I park and then board a bus to the launch site. I wait as a few others climb on. We press on to the viewing site. It’s 11:20.

Launch

The four of us are jammed into seats designed for much younger versions of ourselves. As I watch our progress on the map on my phone, I tick off the streets we pass: Bayberry Lane, Megan Drive, Coachs Lane, and Maddox Road. At last, we reach the drop-off point.

“Hurry, less than a minute!” someone yells.

I hop off the bus. We ask where to go.

“Down the street to just past the Best Western!”

At the end of the street, I see the outlines of a crowd in the darkness  —  a zombie horde of rocket fans. I start out toward them on a dead run, which, for me, is the approximate speed of most people’s hurried walks.

Suddenly, a white flash lights up the sky and then strobes beyond the tall evergreens to my right. The crowd is applauding excitedly. Through the trees, I can see a golden flame as the rocket quickly ascends. Compared to a Shuttle launch, the Minotaur has jumped off the pad, like one of my Estes models when I was a kid.

LADEE liftoff. Photo by NASA/Carla Cioffi.

In a few seconds, the Minotaur clears the treetops. I can see the exhaust plume as the rocket streaks into orbit. A low rumbling follows  —  the sound of the launch has finally caught up to the visual. Overhead, the rocket jettisons its first stage and lights the second, creating an umbrella of flame. I follow the light of the engine for several minutes, until it is overtaken by darkness.

Having made it just halfway down the street, I turn around, walk back, and re-enter the bus to take the same seat.

I say to the driver, “Wasn’t I just here?”

LADEE launch by Matt Hecht.

Letdown

I take the Causeway back to the Eastern Shore. I am excited to have seen the launch, yet disappointed with myself for not leaving my home five minutes earlier. As I drive north on the peninsula, I recall seeing a Perseid meteor shower several years back on the Shore. The sky was astounding compared to the light-polluted view between DC and Baltimore. There, the stars are so sparse I can count them.

I stop on a side road off Route 50, shut down the engine, and step out. The Milky Way stretches across the sky, with its endless planets circling endless stars. Somewhere in space, LADEE is safely circling the Earth, where it will remain until told to enter lunar orbit.

I think about the Orbital and NASA engineers who are now deservedly shaking hands and high-fiving each other. Their job is over. I also think of the LADEE team nervously processing the first words from their spacecraft. Their journey has just begun.

Chris Krupiarz works as a spacecraft flight software engineer for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Originally from Michigan, he now lives in Ellicott City, Maryland, with his wife and two kids. In his spare time he enjoys reading and writing, walking in the woods with the family beagles, and creating fictional sporting events with his sons.

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