If I had to pick a time that represents “middle of the night” for most of America, 2:30AM Pacific feels like a great choice. In all four time zones, most folks are probably asleep. But here in California, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, that’s hardly the case.
Nothing is sleeping at Space Launch Complex 2 — especially not the Delta II rocket caught in the glare of enormous floodlights visible for miles on this clear, starry night. I’m smack-dab in the middle of a raucous crowd peppered with scientists, Air Force officers, rocket enthusiasts, and a group of NASA ‘Tweetup’ attendees like myself — all here watching the rocket hissing quietly on the launch pad a few miles away, venting its cryogenic propellant into the chilly night air.
And then, the countdown strikes zero. No matter how hard I tried to visualize what this moment would look like, my brain is immediately in uncharted territory as the Delta lifts off, emanating an intense yellow-orange brightness that completely washes out the night sky for a few moments. Its not until several seconds later that the rocket’s sound reaches us, the crack of its solid motors popping as it arcs southward. By the time its ground-lift rockets detach 86 seconds into flight, the Delta is ripping downrange at an unfathomable rate. The discarded boosters shimmer like fireflies in the night sky as they tumble towards the ocean.
This fireworks display was brought to me by NASA’s social media team, who invited me to a “Tweetup,” a gathering of space enthusiasts that follow the agency on Twitter. For more on this, check out an article I wrote prior to departing for the event here. The Tweetup provided an amazing tour of Vandenberg Air Force base, culminating in a photo op in front of the rocket I would watch later that night. The payload of this massive rocket is NPP, the NPOESS Preparatory Project, a new climate satellite. For more on what the star of the show does, check out a previous article I wrote for the Planetary Society here.
Tweetup activities kicked off at the NASA Resident Office, a nondescript office building inside the confines of Vandenberg Air Force base. Attendees strolled into a room decked out for a live broadcast of NASA TV. It felt like a press conference — with the Tweetup gang playing the role of the media. Various people involved with NPP were shuffled in to give an overview of various mission aspects, and we were encouraged to pepper them with questions.
Piers Sellers, the affable British astronaut that heads up NASA’s Sciences and Exploration Directorate, gave an overview of NPP’s place in the realm of Earth sciences. Sellers did his best to steer the conversation away from questions about his astronaut days (space smells like roast pork, he explained, answering a question that NPP is not equipped to study).
Satellites are like children — you never really stop worrying about them — according to NPP project scientist Jim Gleason, answering my question about what phase of the launch makes him the most nervous. NPP Systems Manager Janice Smith chimed in on the information technology behind NPP’s vast network of ground receivers (though she wasn’t sure whether the back-end ran on Windows or Linux). Ball Aerospace representative Scott Asbury conceded that yes, his company also makes mason jars, but building NPP is a tad more complex than preserving green beans. Asbury answered my question about NPP’s star trackers (they don’t look at specific stars to determine their position so much as looking at entire star fields). NASA launch director Tim Dunn rounded out our pseudo-press conference by talking specifically about the Delta II, the workhorse rocket about to embark on its 50th NASA mission.
“Find a seat at any station,” says George Diller, the voice of NASA. His soft, baritone voice has narrated shuttle and rocket launches for years on NASA TV, and he’s slated to guide the world through NPP’s flight that evening. At this point, I’m over-stimulated — we’re sitting in Launch Control at the Mission Director’s Center, a room full of consoles displaying vital launch data and countdown timers. Large screens dominate the front wall with live video from the launch site and a feed of NASA TV. I approach Diller on the way out to thank him for the tour and to ask a question: when does he come up with his signature launch phrases for the moment a spacecraft lifts off? “In the shower, or when I’m shaving,” he thoughtfully intones. He came up with his NPP phrase a day earlier.
At the Pacific Coast Club, my server is Trina, according to my lunch buffet receipt that also says, “Thanks for Being a Member!!!” We’re enjoying lunch while rubbing shoulders with Air Force top brass, chowing down on a spread that includes salad, buffalo chicken and macaroni — the homemade kind, with bread crumbs on top. Trina seems to be a combination of intrigued, confused and annoyed at our presence as we queue up to pay. I’m guessing she doesn’t get many outsiders at her register. The bar next door has the traditional look and feel of a military watering hole — mission patches on the wall, a list of rules that include taking off your hat and not talking on your phone with a significant other. A bell above the bar has a patch that reads, “that’s what she said.”
“No cameras, no cell phones, no kidding,” our group is told, as our tour bus approaches the Western Range Operations Control Center, abbreviated as the WROCC, and pronounced “rock.” This is the most secure area on base, and few outsiders ever get a peek inside. Our guide is Jason Brosseau, a young, excitable Air Force lieutenant who seems perpetually in awe of his responsibility to give the final word on whether the area around Vandenberg is clear for launch. Brosseau readily admits that he’s less of a math and physics expert as he is knowledgeable on blowing up rockets that stray off course, describing a Minuteman nuclear missile (sans doomsday payload) that began to tumble end over end shortly after launch, meeting an untimely end by the WROCC’s hands.
The control room itself has a strange lighting ambiance not that dissimilar from a living room with a set of warm overhead lights turned on. Rows of computer consoles face a wall of screens displaying live video and vital information for the launch. The Air Force spares no expense when it comes to seating comfort; each station has a Herman Miller chair that retails for $869 on Amazon.com. How do I know this? My day job company provides the exact same model for managers, and I managed to pilfer one from surplus to cushion my bottom in style for eight hours a day. The WROCC, Brosseau tells us, is 50% redundant — originally built to handle two launches simultaneously. The extra consoles are now used for training, so staff can sit in during live operations.
The real business of rocket launching takes place at several space launch complexes (“slicks,” for those in the know) scattered throughout the base. Vandenberg doesn’t see as much action as it used to — the cold war is over, the space race has long since crowned a victor, and NASA’s budget isn’t what it used to be. The biggest launch pad on the base is SLC-6, originally built to launch space shuttles. How close did Vandenberg get to becoming a West Coast shuttle participant? The Enterprise was perched upright at SLC-6 when Challenger disintegrated on the way to orbit in January 1986. After that, NASA dialed back its ambitions and scrapped plans to operate shuttles from Vandenberg. This means rattlesnakes are about the only visitors to the 15,000 foot landing strip that was constructed to handle orbiter touchdowns.
SLC-6 looks like a 1980s version of Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building. Its beige, corrugated exterior probably looked modern at the time, but it hasn’t aged as gracefully as its East Coast counterpart. The paint is weathered and oxidized around the edges, exposing long-painted over “USAF” letters next to what looks to be a more freshly painted American flag. Gargantuan flame trenches arc out from beneath the building — the shuttle needed separate exhaust paths for its solid and liquid engines. One trench, we’re told, is now filled in with sludge dug out of the ocean near the base’s boathouse, which receives shipments of boosters on barges from Decatur, Alabama. SLC-6 now hosts Delta IV Heavy launches — behemoth, three-barreled rockets reserved for the weightiest of space payloads.
It’s time for the money stop.
Space Launch Complex 2 is as unassuming as the rest of the launch pads at Vandenberg, the only difference seemingly a coat of deep blue-green paint on the towers. One of our guides, Technical Sergeant Tim Tichawa, reminds us that what we’re about to see is a privilege afforded to very few.
I believe him. I find myself standing a mere hundred yards from the Delta II with NPP aboard, still encased safely within the mobile service tower. Members of the media and other involved parties mill about the area, marvelling at the structure just long enough to get disinterested. That’s when it happens: the massive structure starts to move. Slowly, with a barely audible mechanical whine, the tower rolls back to reveal the Delta II. It’s around 5:00PM Pacific, and later tonight, the area in which I’m standing will be flooded with searing exhaust from the rocket’s launch. A decent golfer could ping a chip shot off of NPP’s ride to orbit from this distance. I can scarce take my eyes off of the rocket for the 15 or so minutes we’re afforded to gawk.
Nine hours later, I’m standing at the viewing site, and the rocket is now a mere orange dot, fading in the sky. The NASA tweeters, myself included, begin to bury themselves in mobile devices, looking for official word that NASA’s newest climate satellite is safely in orbit. There will be more engine burns to put the payload into its final position, but as we lose sight of the second stage, the news comes in: the launch was a complete success.
As was my experience. I can’t recall another 24 hours in which I was subjected to more amazing eye candy. I met some wonderful people, saw things that I previously knew to exist only in pictures, and tweeted until my phone’s battery was exhausted. Thanks NASA and Vandenberg, for the time of my life.
For more pictures from the Tweetup, check out my Picasa photo gallery here.