A Japanese H-IIA rocket, with the NASA-Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory onboard, is seen launching from the Tanegashima Space Center, Friday, Feb. 28, 2014, Tanegashima, Japan. The GPM spacecraft will collect information that unifies data from an international network of existing and future satellites to map global rainfall and snowfall every three hours. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Launches are something special and this one was was spectacular. We were 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) from the launch pad, the absolute minimum safe distance at the Takesaki Observation Stand. The roof doubles as a tiered deck, and lined up at every available railing was a tripod and a camera.
Since we had arrived a couple days in advance, producer Michael Starobin and photographer Bill Ingalls staked out a prime spot early. Down in front was a giant digital countdown clock, and as the hours and then the minutes ticked by, periodic announcements in Japanese and then English came over the loud speaker.
But then the last poll came across the speakers at 8 minutes to launch, and then the relentless countdown by a female voice Japanese began. Then it got real.
Across the distance the rocket was lit up on the pad. The countdown continued, a second voice announcing on top of the first — Observatory on internal power — 30 seconds — my heart started pounding as the adrenaline hit — 15 … 10 … 5 — my eyes were bouncing between the clock and the rocket— 4, 3, 2, 1. Zero.
The H-IIA lit up the black of night, bright and beautiful. It was so bright I couldn’t see the rocket at all at first, but then it was rising up and up and up — the rumble reached us some twenty seconds later; you could feel it in your chest — the main engine blazing until it was right overhead. A minute or so in, we could just make out the solid rocket boosters falling away. The rocket kept going, a bright light against the field of stars, going and going for several more minutes until it was just another pinprick in the sky.
Three critical things happen after launch. The first is fairing jettison, when, about four minutes after liftoff, the white nose cone that protects the spacecraft through the atmosphere releases and falls away. Meanwhile, the spacecraft is still attached to the rocket. The second is spacecraft separation, which occurred at a little over 15 minutes. At that point, the rocket was too high to see, so we returned inside to watch it on the telemetry and the camera attached to the rocket.
A whole line of Mitsubishi and JAXA public affairs people were lined up waiting, the press waiting for their reaction. As the only NASA person in the room not holding a camera, the JAXA folks asked me to join them, and we all watched the monitor, waiting for the next minutes to pass. The excitement was high in the room — launch so far had gone flawlessly. Then the black and white rocket cam showed the spacecraft surrounded by black; it had successfully separated and we all grinned and clapped.
A minute later I was back at my computer, checking the @NASA_Rain twitter account, #GPM, and the GPM website for updates, waiting for the next milestone. Solar array deploy complete and collecting power. The GPM Core Observatory was safely in space.
When you’re a three person team out in the field, there’s not always enough time to get it all done.
A Japanese H-IIA rocket with the NASA-Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory onboard, is seen on launch pad 1 of the Tanegashima Space Center, Friday, Feb. 28, 2014, Tanegashima, Japan. Once launched, the GPM spacecraft will collect information that unifies data from an international network of existing and future satellites to map global rainfall and snowfall every three hours. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
We are Launch minus 1 hour. The weather is clear, the rocket is fueled, all systems are GO.
In the press room, reporters are grabbing their hard hats and the cameras and heading up to the roof. I’ll be joining them shortly.
Live launch coverage has started on NASA TV and online at www.nasa.gov/nasatv
Latest mission milestones will be flying thick and fast on www.nasa.gov/gpm
And below is all the coverage Michael, NASA photographer Bill Ingalls, and I have done over the last week.
GPM’s H-IIA Rocket Rolls Out to the Launch Pad
The H-IIA rocket with the Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory aboard rolled out to Launch Pad 1 at 1:04 p.m. on Feb. 27 (Japan time) at Tanegashima Space Center, Japan. The rocket is scheduled to lift off during a launch window that opens at 3:37 a.m. (JST) on Feb. 28. (1:37 p.m. Feb. 27 EST).
GPM: Waiting for Launch
The Global Precipitation Measurement mission’s Core Observatory is poised for launch from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Tanegashima Space Center, scheduled for the afternoon of Feb. 27, 2014 (EST). http://youtu.be/nnjL0AwFu9g
GPM’s Last Stop Before Orbit
Art Azarbarzin, NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement mission project manager, and Mashahiro Kojima, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s GPM/DPR project manager, reflect on the long journey the GPM Core Observatory spacecraft has taken to reach its last stop before orbit, the Tanegashima Space Center, Japan. http://youtu.be/9AnLxge5ONY
GPM: Three Shrine Pilgrimage
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) team members bow at the Ebisu Shrine, the first shrine in a traditional San-ja Mairi, or Three Shrine Pilgrimage, where the team prays on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014 for a successful launch, Tanegashima Island, Japan. http://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/gpm-three-shrine-pilgrimage/
GPM: Greetings from Minamitame!
This video introduces Minamitame Town, near the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Tanegashima Space Center, from where the Global Precipitation Measurement mission’s Core Observatory is scheduled to launch on the afternoon of Feb. 27, 2014 (EST). http://youtu.be/b__X7_u6uDk
GPM: Welcome to Minamitane Town
A sign with a model of the Japanese H-IIB rocket welcomes visitors to Minamitane Town on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. Minamitane Town is one of only a few small towns located outside of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Tanegashima Space Center, where the launch of an H-IIA rocket carrying the Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory will take place in the next week. http://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/gpm-welcome-to-minamitane-town/
GPM: Tanegashima Space Center
A full-size model of an H-II rocket is seen at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Tanegashima Space Center visitors center a week ahead of the planned launch of an H-IIA rocket carrying the Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory, Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, Tanegashima Island, Japan. http://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/gpm-tanegashima-space-center/
A dome protected weather radar just south of Minamitane is part of a weather station for Tanegashima Space Center. Feb 23. Tanegashima, Japan. Credit: NASA/Ellen Gray
I hear it was snowing in Maryland last night/today. In my inbox this evening (East Coast morning), I got the boilerplate message that while Goddard Space Flight Center is open on Feb. 26, non-critical and non-emergency personal could telework or take leave to avoid the snowy roads. The GPM team members scheduled to be on console for Thursday’s launch of the Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory are definitely critical.
As I write this in Tanegashima, I’ve been listening to a rainstorm blow across the island. Earlier, the wind was so loud outside of the Spacecraft Test and Assembly building where the GPM project offices are that Michael Starobin and I were worried about driving back to the hotel. The roads are narrow and twisty, which is bad enough after dark when we have drive on the opposite side of the road than we do in the States. Fortunately, when we walked outside the heavy rain we feared hadn’t hit yet, but the wind was wind you lean into.
Weather is one of the deciding factors for when a launch actually happens. It’s also the most fickle. Today, the first launch weather report was issued at Tanegashima Space Center at the Launch Readiness Review, the last major review panel of NASA and JAXA officials who gave GPM a go for launch on Feb. 28 (Feb. 27 in the U.S.) with an updated launch window beginning at 3:37 a.m. (1:37 p.m. EST).
Despite the rain here, the weather forecast for liftoff looks good. From the official update: “Weather at T-0 is forecast to be some scattered clouds with light winds, neither of which are expected to affect launch. Winds at launch are forecast to be 13 mph (violation is 47 mph).”
In about 28 hours, we’ll be watching a relatively clear night sky light up.
For those following along at home, live coverage of launch will begin at 12 noon EST on NASA TV. You can watch streaming online at: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv
The H-IIA rocket that will carry the GPM Core Observatory into space. Here you can see the orange first stage and the silver second stage with the GPM logo on it. Jan. 20, Tanegashima Space Center. Credit: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries
The H-IIA No. 23 rocket that will carry the GPM Core Observatory into space arrived at Tanegashima Space Center on Jan. 20, 2014. The rocket has two stages, a lower first stage that, with the help of two solid rocket boosters, gets it off the ground, and an upper second stage that lights up a few minutes after launch to boost the satellite the rest of the way into orbit. The launch services provider, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), immediately began assembling the rocket. On Jan. 22, the GPM team in Tanegashima was invited to participate in a blessing ceremony for the rocket. Lynette Marbley, the Instruments Chief Safety and Mission Assurance Officer for GPM, represented the NASA team.
She wrote to me about her experience. Her responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
Where did the ceremony take place?
The ceremony took place in the Vertical Assembly Building (VAB) at the foot of the rocket as it sits in the platform.
What did the space that the ceremony took place in look like?
I was amazed to see that they had already placed the upper stage onto the lower stage considering it had been less than 48 hours since its arrival. As I looked up to try and see the top of the rocket, I could see the large GPM logo on the upper stage. It was wonderful to see that logo! The work platform that surrounded the rocket was maybe 15 floors tall. I couldn’t see the top of the rocket. The space where we had the ceremony reminded me of the Goddard High Bay in the Building 29/7 complex, except it was taller.
To give you a sense of size, the rocket is about 15 stories tall. Jan 20. Credit: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries
What happened during the ceremony?
When we arrived, a wooden altar was in place in front of the rocket, and two potted trees were on either side of the altar. There were fruits and vegetables already on the altar and some shrubbery with paper tied to it. Next to the altar was a table that had several large bottles of what I believe is the local potato wine called sochu, a large tree branch with paper tied to it, and several smaller branches.
Two rows of chairs were set up several feet in front of the altar with open space behind them. Every company that has a role in this launch had two representatives sit in the chairs. I had an MHI employee sitting behind me to help me through the ceremony. The remaining GPM team members were lined up behind the chairs. I had two lines of GPM folks standing behind me, about 25-30 people per line and by far the biggest group amongst all the companies. JAXA, MHI, NASA, KHI (Kawasaki Heavy Industries), and IHI Aerospace were represented.
The Shinto shrine set up at the base of the rocket and the kannushi, or priest, who led the ceremony. Jan 20, 2014. Credit: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries
GPM team members lined up behind Lynette, seated in the front row, third from the left. Jan 20, 2014. Credit: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries
The Shinto priest was busy preparing for the ceremony and donned his robes to start. As we all took our places in the chairs, we started out standing. The announcer spoke only Japanese and made some opening remarks. The priest was introduced, and the company representatives all had to bow in unison at the start of the ceremony.
The ceremony was broken into several sections with the Shinto priest doing a lot of chanting approaching the altar, bowing, and shaking the large branch in front of the altar and over his shoulders. The room was very quiet. We mostly stood and bowed during certain segments and at other times we sat. His voice was very deep and had a vibrating sound. At one point, he read from a script and I heard the words “GPM” and “rocket” several times. He also mentioned every company in the prayer.
I understand you had an active role — what did you get to do?
[I participated in] the Tamagushi-houten portion of the ceremony.
Excerpt from the information packet given to the team before the ceremony. The Tamagushi-houten midway through the ceremony. First the priest cleansed the attendees of evils and invited the god to the alter where he made a sacrifice of food. Then he prayed for the safety of the launch campaign and mission success. Next he blessed the facilities. Then it was time for the Tamagushi-houten when the attendees offer their pure spirits to the god. Finally, the priest withdraws the sacrifice of food and send off the god, and all present bow. Jan 20, 2014. Source: Info provided by MHI
I practiced for several days, and I even looked it up on YouTube to see if I could get a better visual of what to do, which was helpful. I basically took the offering branch from the priest in a specific way and placed it on the altar. After placing it on the alter, I and all NASA team members had to bow twice, clap twice, and bow one more time. I then proceeded back to my seat.
Lynette Marbley placing the offering of Sakaki-tree sprigs on the alter during the blessing ceremony. Jan 20. Credit: Mitsubishi Heavy Indutries
What was the mood like?
It was very quiet and very serious and somber. Everyone was careful not to make a sound. As I looked at other representatives, they were very focused and intense. We all stood at attention with very little movement.
Did you like the ceremony?
I was very nervous but was happy to have had the opportunity to represent NASA. I wanted to make sure I had given the offering properly. Everyone felt I had done a great job, and I have never felt so proud to represent NASA and my country.
In the end, I guess it was fitting that the Safety and Mission Assurance Officer be the one to represent NASA in a ceremony praying for the Safety of the Launch Campaign and Mission Success!
NASA GPM Radio Frequency Engineer David Lassiter monitors the progress of an all-day launch simulation for the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory at the Spacecraft Test and Assembly Building 2 (STA2), Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, Tanegashima Space Center (TNSC), Tanegashima Island, Japan. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
When a satellite gets to space, the first thing it needs to do is check in with those who sent it there. NASA’s David Lassiter is the guy on the other end of the line. “My job is just to make sure E.T. can call,” he said. Responsible for radio frequency communications– RF comms–he’ll be on console the night Global Precipitation Measurement mission’s Core Observatory heads for space.
David is just one part of a large international cast, ready to push open the curtains on something that’s been in production a long time. The running crew has cleared the wings. House managers have checked the doors. On headsets all stations check in, voices clear, sharp, and spare. It’s dress rehearsal, and the combined cast and crew from NASA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and Mitsubishi lean into their parts as if it were opening night.
Soon. Very soon.
Years of planning, of logistics, of language training and technical coaching and set design, have led this elite corps to the performance precipice. The saying goes that a bad dress rehearsal promises a good opening night, but in this case, nobody in the bifurcated casts spread between Tanegashima, Japan and Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland will accept anything less than perfection in the run-thru.
The big show’s opening night is also it’s closing night. This will be a command performance, a one-time-only show of epic proportions attended by senior staff from two proud space-faring agencies. But like all command performances, leaders may have privileged seats but it’s the vast throng of commoners who’s interest make events memorable. Those groundlings are all of us. For a mission focused on global rainfall, the GPM launch is a show for all the people of Earth.
The NASA Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory team is seen during an all-day launch simulation for GPM at the Spacecraft Test and Assembly Building 2 (STA2), Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, Tanegashima Space Center (TNSC), Tanegashima Island, Japan. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
In the control room there’s commotion of a sort, but far, far from the white knuckle derring-do of Hollywood rocket launches. In this rehearsal everyone has their lines down cold, and the consensus is that everyone is hitting their marks on time, on cue. To the non-technical observer there’s a refreshing cool among the corps that instills confidence. Come launch time that confidence and cool will be essential. All participants will have to be on console at launch-minus-10 hours, keeping an eye on every single thing that happens before lift-off. At 30 minutes before launch until 30 minutes after, nobody will enter or leave the control room for any reason whatsoever.
Tim Gruner speaks into a headset, a direct line of communications with the Mission Operations Center at Goddard in Maryland. His voice, along with streams of computer data, flies around the planet to keep all parties on track. It’s nighttime in Maryland during the rehearsal, but during the big show, day and night will be reversed.
Andy Alyward and John Schater have the unusual task of actually standing by at the launch pad. Ostensibly responsible for powering up the GPM Observatory before launch, they’re only on site in case of a problem with the automated computer scripts. At launch-minus-10 hours, they’ll confirm good power, and then high-tail it from the launch site for the safety of control room several miles away. Their oversight is critical because at launch time several systems need to be powered up, including command and data handling, communications receivers, and heaters. Batteries will keep the satellite operational until solar panels unfurl, it tips toward the sun, and starts making its own electricity.
The real action is back at Goddard’s Mission Operations Center and the launch control room located elsewhere at the Tanegashima Space Center. Here in the satellite control room, the group of specialists carefully watching their monitors are largely keeping tabs on their satellite, waiting atop a sleeping Mitsubishi H-IIA heavy lift rocket. Like they say in theater, there’s no such thing as an unimportant role no matter how small. The team here may not be those launching the rocket, but their payload is the big reason this rocket launch matters so very much.
In conversations with the team afterward, the prevailing sentiment is not one of anticipation, but of impending completion. Sure, there’s plenty of excitement, but the NASA team has been in Japan for a long, long time, and home sings its eternally wistful song. There’s nothing like a successful rocket launch to remind you that you just saw a big job through to it’s completion. With this solid rehearsal under their belts, the team is ready to let that moment of completion fly.