NASA Social Launch of Orbital/ATK Antares Rocket with Cygnus CRS OA-9E

I was happy to be able to go on my second “NASA Social” trip, this time at Wallops Island Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), which has special significance for me. I grew up on the eastern shore of Maryland, about 100 miles north of Wallops, and somehow we got a special tour there as a child. I also spent a week each summer in Ocean City, right up the coastline. So that area has always been a bit of an interest of mine, and while I had visited the facility during an open house I had never seen a launch there. I had been accepted twice for launches there before; the first time the launch got rescheduled to a time I couldn’t get out of work, and the second time got messed up by an administrative issue. But this trip lined up on a weekend where I didn’t have class obligations right at the end of my crazy semester, so I jumped at the chance to do it.  

NASA Social is a very cool program run by NASA which gives enthusiasts with an online presence almost the same access as fully credentialed media (my last NASA Social trip was to a Space X launch in Florida, which was amazing and enlightening; I wrote about here). It’s a brilliant idea by NASA since it spreads the word via people really excited about the whole process, and also fills in a bunch of gaps in terms of media coverage--the only traditional TV media, for example, that we saw on this trip was reporters from the Ukraine.

This launch mission was designated Cygnus CRS OA-9E, where Cygnus is the name of the spacecraft, and CRS is Commercial Resupply Service, which brings cargo and scientific experiments to the International Space Station (ISS).  The Cygnus spacecraft was carried via an Orbital/ATK Antares rocket, which uses first stage Ukranian rocket engines brought by overseas by ship and then truck to the facility for assembly. The launch was initially scheduled for very early (5am or so) Sunday morning May 20, so I drove down Friday, and thought I’d have a nice leisurely drive back to NYC on Sunday. The launch got pushed to 4:44 am on Monday May 21, so I stayed another day and I’m glad I did.

This launch carried cargo to the ISS, and also several scientific satellites which would be deployed after separating from the space station, and then the Cygnus was sent off to burn up in the atmosphere along with a lot of ISS waste.

We first met on Saturday, and even the people in the NASA social group--about 40 if I remember right--were pretty amazing, including everyone from teachers to Washington DC security contractors, and an interesting mix of extroverts and introverts. But all of them had a passion for one or another aspect of this launch, and in these tumultuous times, it's heartening to see such amazing, rational, passionate people both working on the mission and also taking their own time to observe and communicate about the project. 

We then got to watch the press conference detailing all the science that would be carried into space on the rocket; Spaceflight Now has a good overview of the science missions here, and a NASA video of the fascinating presentations is here

On our rescheduled Sunday, we got to go out to the launch site, which was really cool:

I'm glad I brought my big telephoto.  This thing is impressive:

We then got to tour the amazing horizontal integration facility (HIF), where the rockets are assembled.

One thing that was interesting to me was even with all this high tech stuff, scale aside, this place used a lot of the same kind of techniques and tools that we use in building entertainment systems.

Next up was a press conference for the mission:

Of course this is the control geek blog, so visiting the range control center was pretty cool:

We got a surprise visit from newly Trump-appointed NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, formerly an Oklahoma congressman with no science background.  Fortunately, as director of NASA, it's good to hear that he recently changed his tune on climate change.

Next up was the Balloon Research Development Lab:

Here they make and test balloons for research missions all over the world.  They also make sounding (not orbital) rockets in a very cool, high tech machine shop:

They make a lot of cool parts here, but not the nose cones since that's apparently a speciality:

The passion of the people who work here was infectious:

They also do electronics assembly and testing here, and again the similarity to the stuff we make to go on tour is interesting:

We then got to hear about the HaloSat mission and then hear from Astronaut Kay Hire who had spent time on the ISS.  I tried to go to sleep early (not my nature) to be up for the 2:15 AM bus call, but in the end I got like maybe an hour's of sleep.  But seeing the launch from just two miles away was worth it, especially since thunderstorms cleared the area just in time:

On my last trip, one of the things that was so amazing was the sound. So on this trip I brought my little pro stereo recorder, and sync'ed it up with video from my GoPro. You should listen to this on headphones, or better yet loud with a subwoofer (keep in mind the audio is about 10 seconds behind picture due to the distance):

Even though we were all just observers, everyone felt invested in this launch, and it's a pretty profound experience.  Everyone just fell silent once the thing roared off over the horizon.  The rocket went off and performed flawlessly. They docked it with the ISS a few days later and then it re-entered and burned up over the ocean (and the rocket we saw is now at the bottom of the Atlantic somewhere).  And what's really amazing to me is that the second stage stayed up there for more than 14 days  Update July 15: The capsule has now departed the space station..

I got back to my car at about 5:15am and drove directly home to make an 11am doctor's appointment and then to teach my 2pm class. The class I was teaching was the final sound system setup, so I made sure to add a subwoofer to the system and played my raw audio file for the students.

In the end, it was an inspiring trip; this mission directly supports the quest to answer basic questions about the universe, and the entire intent of this program is to better the world and our experiences on it. This is the kind of thing I'm proud to spend my tax money on and I encourage more of it. 

Click on any of the photos above to enlarge them; many more photos here.