30 November 2011

MSL Launch

Posted by Ryan

We got up before dawn, tired but buzzing with anticipation. To get to the VIP viewing area for the launch, we had to drive to a nearby stadium, park, and then show our bus passes to get on one of the dozens of buses waiting to drive to NASA. As the bus filled up, I started to see other faces that I recognized. Scientists involved in the mission, grinning to hide their nerves.

As we drove to Kennedy Space Center, the sun broke through the clouds, pouring brilliant golden light onto the palms and wetlands and waterways. The Vehicle Assembly Building loomed monolithic in the distance, growing improbably large as the bus carried us closer. We caught a glimpse of the monstrous crawler that has carried shuttles and moon rockets to the launch pad, now parked outside the VAB, waiting for a new rocket to carry.

Finally we arrived at the Saturn V center and emerged from the bus. The rows of bleachers were already partly filled, but we found an open section and claimed it. In the near distance, across the water, the shuttle pads sat empty. But there, barely visible over the tops of distant trees, flanked by lightning towers, was an Atlas V rocket.

MSL on the launch pad.

With more than two hours remaining before the launch, we took turns sitting vigil in the bleachers while others in our group toured the Saturn V building behind us. I took the first watch in the bleachers. As more buses arrived, the viewing area filled up, and more and more familiar faces appeared in the crowd. There’s my thesis adviser and his family, there’s the deputy project scientist, there’s the principal investigator of CheMin. In a way, the morning had a wedding-like feel to it, as people from different parts of my life all congregated in one place.

After some brief rain showers and a brief rainbow, it was my turn to check out the Saturn V center. On the way into the building, I passed by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. Little did I know that he was going out to give an inspirational speech to the crowds gathered on the bleachers. I’m not too upset about missing it though. No speech can match the inspiration that comes from being in the presence of a Saturn V rocket. Walking the length of the rocket and finally arriving at the pinnacle, where the astronauts lived and worked during their mission is a reminder of just how amazing the Apollo program was, and how incredibly difficult it is to send things into space.

I bought the requisite MSL mission polo shirt at the gift shop, and then we rushed back out to the bleachers. The whole time I was in the building, some irrational part of my brain feared that MSL would somehow launch early and I would miss it. But of course, it can’t launch early. The laws of physics dictate precisely when it can launch, and we were well ahead of that time when we returned to the bleachers.

As the clock ticked down, the excitement and nervousness built. The ChemCam team in the set of bleachers next to ours started doing group cheers to blow off steam (and to make for more interesting photo ops). Finally, the clock stopped at four minutes for a planned hold. Over the loudspeakers, we could hear the Go/No-Go checklist. With each “go”, the suspense built. I could feel my heart beating faster. Finally, with word that the weather was “Go”, the clock resumed.

Someone sang the national anthem, and the crowd stood and sung along, but all eyes were on the clock as it crept closer to zero. With about a minute left, some lawyer at NASA decided that the launch safety disclaimer needed to be read, as if we could do anything about it at this point. But the monotonous safety briefing was drowned out as the clock hit ten seconds and the crowd began to count down. I set my camera to record video and watched the launch pad.

Zero seconds, and the crowd held its breath. My heart was pounding in my ears, my eyes squinting at the rocket in the distance, willing everything to work. I thought of the decades of work put into every piece of the spacecraft now perched atop a bomb that was about to go off.

Smoke, and then fire, and the rocket climbed the sky. The crowd erupted in cheers but I stood quietly, soaking in the sight of the launch. The flames behind the rocket were a brilliant, bright gold, like the dawn light that spilled through the clouds that morning. Brighter than any camera can capture. Bright enough to leave spots in your vision if you stare too long. But of course, I couldn’t look away.

At first it was quiet. The crowd roared, but the rocket, miles away, rose majestic and silent on a pillar of fire and smoke. About halfway up the sky, the sound hit us, like the rumbling of distant thunder, but in a persistent crescendo. There was power in the sound. You could tell that an almost unimaginable force was being unleashed, far away.

And then, as gradually as it came, the sound faded. The rocket arced away from us, out over the Atlantic and up, into space. The winds toyed with the pillar of smoke, contorting it and slowly dispersing it. The birds, disturbed by the sound of the launch, settled back onto their perches, and it was over.

Mars Science Laboratory had left the Earth, and I watched it go. On shaky legs, I climbed down the bleachers, and back into the buses. Unlike launches watched on NASA TV, we had no indication of what might be happening in orbit. Did the second stage fire? Did the spacecraft separate? Was it safely on its way? Everyone on the bus had phones out, attempting to text or call or find the NASA TV feed, but we had no signal. We were just about as close to the launch as possible, but we were left in the dark now that the rocket was gone.

Eventually, as the bus drove us back, we regained contact with the world. Smartphones were passed around, showing the booster separation on NASA TV. I watched my launch video again, and tried to convince myself that I really had just seen MSL go to Mars. Lofted into space, to fall down onto the surface of another planet in 8 months with unprecedented precision, directly into the field site that I have studied for the last few years. It makes everything much more real, and more urgent. Suddenly the next 8 months seems frighteningly short.

It is fitting that the launch occurred shortly after thanksgiving because there is so much to be thankful for. I am thankful to have a family that values education and could afford it so that I could get into grad school. I thankful that I chose an adviser involved in the mission and that he let me work on the landing site long before we knew it would be MSL’s final destination. I am thankful for the fellowship at NASA that allowed me to work on ChemCam, and I’m thankful that I will be able to continue to work on the mission once it lands.

I’ve been unbelievably lucky. Here’s hoping the luck holds and that in 8 months, Curiosity lands safely in Gale Crater.

Godspeed, MSL.