Archive for June 5, 2010

Day 6 – Wondering what bit my ear, and Rocketships

June 5, 2010 11 comments

Location: Brunswick, GA

Miles Driven: 289.5

Total Miles: 1694.8

Spent the early morning lounging about with Tim for a bit…it was great to sit back and talk with an old friend for a while.  Also enjoyed an early morning free from a weird sensation in my left ear.  I think I was stung by something in Clearwater, as my ear got itchy and a little swollen over the next few days.  But some ice on it the night prior seemed to help alleviate the strange feeling.

Eventually got ready to head out towards the Cape, a 45 minute drive from us.  Earlier in the week, Tim had told me there was a planned rocket launch for this exact day – Friday, June 4.  As I mentioned in the last post, the timing seemed to be good to be true…I hadn’t adjusted my plans at all for any kind of rockets.  Last I checked several months ago, the next shuttle launch isn’t until the fall (one of the last few remaining).  So to find out there was a rocket launch planned for the same day I was planning to be near the Cape was quite “serendipitious” as my friends Nate and Melissa described.  The weather would play a big role in whether the rocket launch went up or not, and I’ve seen rain all over the state (along with some bad storms), so  I was cautiously optimistic.

I followed Tim towards the Cape, and being the astronomy/space exploration nerd that I am, got some chills getting closer and closer, especially as I saw signs for the Kennedy Space Center.

Too cool

We headed in the direction of Cocoa Beach.  I had considered going to the Space Center to get a tour, but the admission is somewhat pricey, and I would only have a limited time there if I wanted to keep myself available during the launch window, which was 11AM – 3PM.

Arrived in the Cocoa Beach area not long after 9AM, and Tim showed me some of his favorite areas of the beach.  Got a bunch of walking in as we made a big loop, exploring a big pier in-between.

Cocoa Beach

I kept a nervous eye on the sky – it wasn’t overcast, but there were a lot of thick clouds.  At the same time I was checking status updates of the launch online via my phone.  At 9:30AM it was reported the “90 minute countdown” had started, so things were looking positive so far.

Tim getting the sand off his feet, and struggling with the spigot

Around 10:30AM we were making our way back to the cars.  Tim knew a good spot to view the launch from – Cape Canaveral Lock – so we drove there and arrived with about 10 minutes to spare.  Before I get further in the story, a note about this launch: this rocket, the Falcon 9, was built by SpaceX, a private firm.  SpaceX also developed the Dragon spacecraft, which is planned to be supply craft (eventually with the capability to ferry people) for the International Space Station, after all the space shuttles are officially retired.  It took SpaceX $400M to reach this point, and this planned rocket launch was only a test – the rocket held a mock-up of the Dragon spacecraft.

Turned out no rush was necessary a some folks already on a bench, waiting for the launch themselves, and said they heard 11:20 was the updated launch time.  We all waited anxiously, trying to learn whatever updates we could from one another.  Checking the website, I found the following message:

1505 GMT (11:05 a.m. EDT)T-minus 15 minutes and holding. The launch has been delayed, but there is no explanation from SpaceX.

Ok, no luck right away, we felt.  But remember, the launch window was from 11AM – 3PM, so an early delay wouldn’t necessarily preclude liftoff.  So I was continually refreshing the website on my phone, hoping to see if there were any more details as we sat there.  The next meaningful message was:

1538 GMT (11:38 a.m. EDT)The Air Force Eastern Range is reviewing signals from the Falcon 9’s flight termination system to ensure the destruct package can work as advertised.

“Ok, they’re just being very cautious,” we were saying to ourselves. The story was this launch was somewhat experimental in nature, so the ability to self-destruct the rocket if something went awry was absolutely necessary.  No problem, understood.  Then the next message:

1604 GMT (12:06 p.m. EDT)SpaceX says they have a “path forward” for launching at 1 p.m. EDT, and possibly earlier if they can resolve the flight termination system connectivity issues soon.

For some at the Lock, 1PM was not a convenient time to catch the launch.  This included Tim who had to go to work for a bit.  As for me, I had no rush to be anywhere, so I figured I could wait it out.  Tim and I parted ways, and I figured I’d squeeze in a nap in the car and get back out in time for the new 1PM launch time.  I have a nice little nap, get my supplies back out (camera, binoculars), and then make my way to the bench once again.  I get settled, and then decide to check the status online:

1647 GMT (12:47 p.m. EDT)The range went red just before the countdown was supposed to resume. The reason is unknown.

I didn’t know exactly what was meant by all this, but I do know from my four years of government contracting that red = bad.  So no countdown yet, and I was sitting there, continually refreshing the website to see what was going on.

1705 GMT (1:05 p.m. EDT)Air Force helicopters are intercepting a sailboat off the coast of Florida that strayed into the danger area.

Silly boaters!  Get outta there!  Frustrating, but not a big deal, as I figured the Air Force would get the sailboat going in the other direction and the countdown could start once again.  The next message got me thinking more and more that the launch was really going to happen:

1715 GMT (1:15 p.m. EDT)T-minus 15 minutes and counting! After overcoming an issue with the Falcon 9’s destruct system, and clearing a sailboat out of the ocean danger zone, the countdown clock has picked up for launch at 1:30 p.m. EDT

Now I was getting pumped.  The launch window was to cut off at 3pm, so this might be one of the last few chances to organize a full countdown and get things going again.  And I was getting more and more anxious as the next few status updates appeared:

1724 GMT (1:24 p.m. EDT)T-minus 6 minutes and counting. Launch remains set for 1:30 p.m. EDT.

1727 GMT (1:27 p.m. EDT)T-minus 3 minutes. The ground safety officer will soon enable ignition. All systems remain “go” for launch, according to SpaceX.

1728 GMT (1:28 p.m. EDT)T-minus 2 minutes. Range has given their final clear for launch.

Woohoo!  Here we go, right??

1729 GMT (1:29 p.m. EDT)T-minus 60 seconds. In the final minute of the countdown, the relief valve on the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage will be closed and the propellant tanks will be pressurized for flight.  The Merlin main engines will ignite beginning at approximately T-minus 3.5 seconds.

Now it’s going to happen, I’m sure of it.  I’m looking forward to seeing the bright flash of the engines igniting.  But 1:30 came, and no bright flash.  Then 1:31…1:32…still nothing.  I check for an update:

1730 GMT (1:30 p.m. EDT)ABORT! The countdown was stopped a few seconds before launch.

Bummer.  My confidence in this launch happening was waning just as the launch window was waning.  I hung around for the next several minutes to see if I could get any news.

1736 GMT (1:36 p.m. EDT)SpaceX can recycle the countdown and try again during today’s launch window, if they can resolve whatever problem triggered this abort. The window extends until 3 p.m. EDT.

All right.  At this point I wasn’t sure if I should give up, or if I should stick it out.  It was very hot out, and I was getting a little hungry.  The following status updates didn’t help me decide one way or another:

1744 GMT (1:44 p.m. EDT)We are still waiting on word about the cause of the countdown abort and whether SpaceX will make another attempt today.

1748 GMT (1:48 p.m. EDT)The countdown is back at T-minus 15 minutes and holding.

1759 GMT (1:59 p.m. EDT)SpaceX will try to set up for another launch attempt this afternoon. There’s a little over an hour left in today’s launch window. The launch try at 1:30 p.m. EDT was cut off because an engine parameter fell out of limits.

I went back to my car to take a break and cool off with the A/C.  Over and over, I was refreshing the website to get updates, but didn’t get one until over 20 minutes later:

1822 GMT (2:22 p.m. EDT)SpaceX confirms the new target launch time is 2:45 p.m. EDT. The countdown should resume in eight minutes.

All right, now we’re talking.  This would definitely be the last chance for launch today.  If it didn’t happen, I’d be out of luck, as I wanted to head North in the late afternoon.

Talked with Tim via text and since his work site was close by, he drove down to join me to wait out this final countdown.  We went over to a graddy area and joined a family equipped with big binoculars, video cameras, and watches.

1835 GMT (2:35 p.m. EDT)T-minus 10 minutes and counting. The terminal countdown has started and the rocket’s propellant prevalves have been opened to flow liquid oxygen into the first stage’s nine Merlin engines.

A few minutes later and I am reminded of the harsh realities of launching:

1840 GMT (2:40 p.m. EDT)T-minus 5 minutes and counting. Computers are controlling the launch countdown within the last 10 minutes to liftoff. Any issue now would trigger another hold and likely a scrub today.

At this point, I couldn’t get any more status updates from the website.  I presumed the site was overloaded with visitors, but one of the men in the family we joined had a countdown of his own going.  Their kids were hoping for some kind of explosion – not wanting the mission to fail, but in the hopes of seeing something spectacular.  I gave Tim my binoculars, got my camera ready, and hoped for the best.

And then, the payoff:

My apologies for the shaky video, I couldn’t view the LCD of my camera in the sun’s glare, so I was practically guessing where to aim the lens.  You can get a slight hint of the noise this thing generated after the 0:30 point.  Also, pay close attention at the 0:43 mark, as you’ll see a flash as another stage fires and the rocket picks up more speed.

Success!  Though we were several miles away, the noise generated by the rocket was pretty powerful.  And the rocket sure moved fast – within about a minute, it was gone from view.  But what a shot in the arm for the private space industry!  I later learned the rocket did achieve orbital insertion and this test launch was a success.  I’m glad I stuck it out.

If you want to see better video of the launch, go here:

So after almost four hours of waiting I saw the launch, and now it was time to leave the Lock.  Grabbed a bite to eat, did some work on the computer, and eventually got on I-95 as the journey turns northward for almost the remainder of this month.

I’m now sitting at a “Flying J” truck stop about 80 miles south of Savannah.  Planning to arrive in Savannah by late morning, and some friends who have recently visited gave me a couple recommendations of things to check out.  Looking forward to seeing such a historic place.

Despite some sunburns, it was another great day.  To think of the lucky timing I had to catch that launch – a launch that was moved to today because an unrelated launch was postponed earlier, at the only time I’ve ever been to Cape Canaveral, and at a time that synched perfectly with my Florida portion of the roadtrip.  Indeed…serendipitious.

The end of a great time in Florida