Count it among the things I never thought I would ever do in my lifetime—get up close to a loaded rocket that will carry a satellite into space in less than two days.
When your launch is on a Monday, the weekend is still busy, busy, busy. But Saturday morning two days before launch, a few of us working on the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) project had a fantastic break. The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Launch Director invited us to come up to Space Launch Complex 3 where LDCM is currently sitting atop its Atlas V ride for a group photo.
It was a giddy group. As one of the mission science writers, I’ve only been working on LDCM for two years, but many on the project have been with the mission for much longer. Getting a chance to see the culmination of all the hard work of designing the mission and the instruments, getting them and the spacecraft built, tested and integrated into the LDCM satellite, prepping and loading the rocket–all of that was stretching up in one long column on this gorgeous California morning.
Space Launch Complex 3, or SLC (pronounced “slick”) 3, is set up on a bit of a hill on the south portion of Vandenberg Air Force Base. Downhill from the parking lot is the Pacific Ocean, the large unpopulated reason that U.S. spaceports are on coasts: if anything goes wrong the rocket lands in the water.
Mike Marasco and Debbie Fettig from ULA escorted us through the turnstiles into the restricted area and we walked up the short road to the tower that holds the rocket. Essentially the scaffolding that allows workers to access the rocket from the ground up, the tower doors were open so we could see the Atlas V and the white faring containing LDCM at the tippy-top.
We were maybe 100 to 150 feet away from the base of the pad. It was amazing to be so close. I saw Sarah Ryker, deputy associate director of the USGS Climate and Lands Use Change who has been working tirelessly on the future of the Landsat program and asked her how excited she was to finally see LDCM ready to go. She just grinned from ear to ear. It was a little surreal to finally see everything come together, she said, and beyond exciting.
We gathered for a bunch of photos with the base tower in the background. David Ward, flight insurance manager from Orbital Science Corp, had the only camera allowed on the site. Between shots we milled around a little, excitedly chatting about launch.
I grabbed Jerry Nagy, deputy observatory manager from NASA Goddard to point out the different parts of the rocket. The Atlas V booster makes up the long shiny, bottom portion and, right now, the lower section is filled with kerosene, the rocket propellant. It will be combined with liquid oxygen, to be fueled an hour and a half before launch, and ignited to provide an explosive 860,200 pounds of thrust. The liquid oxygen is so cold that after the Atlas is fueled, water from the air will condense and freeze on the outside of the tank, forming big chunks of ice. At launch, Jerry’s fingers wiggle, it will all shake off.
Jerry’s finger then moved upward to the white section of the column, pointing out the Centaur upper stage engine. Its fuel is liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen that will ignite for its first burn ten seconds after the Atlas falls away, four minutes and eight seconds after launch. It will have a second burn, 70 minutes into launch to push LDCM into its preliminary orbit.
With the group photos done, we started to wander back toward the gate, but then Mike stopped us. “This way,” he said, and Debbie added, “It’s about to get a whole lot better.”
No one quite believed it as we followed Mike toward the tower, but then he was packing us into the cargo elevator and taking us to Level 15. When we stepped out, there she was: the white nose cone, or faring, holding LDCM.
We weren’t quite within touching distance—we had to stay outside the blue line on the platform—but we were closer than any of us who usually work on the ground ever expected to be. It was a like that moment in Star Trek: First Contact when, after traveling back in time, Picard reaches out and touches the rocket that propels the Phoenix, the first warp capable ship, into space. But where Picard’s moment was fictional history, our moment was living history that was made by the people on that platform and the thousands of others who couldn’t be there across NASA, the USGS, and our partners at Ball, Orbital and ULA. The past week I have met so many people on all the teams that have brought the LDCM mission to life, and I am constantly amazed by what they do. The LDCM mission has had at times a difficult path to get to the top of this tower, but now it is poised to carry on the longest continuous record of Earth’s land surface that we have
Terri Hynson from the Goddard project office perhaps put it best: “That’s our baby up there.”