[Mercury friend Robert Fortney recently went to Vandenberg Air Force Base for a NASA social, where he had VIP access to a rocket launch. We think rockets are neat, so we asked him to blog about his experience.- Eds]
It’s 7:30 A.M. I’m standing in front of the South Gate of Vandenberg Air Force Base, trying my best to shield my cold hands from the freezing air that belies every PRcampaign produced about “Sunny California.” The crowd of strangers gathering around me looks just as spasmodic as I feel—but little of that has anything to do with the cold.
Most of us, I’d imagine, would brave harsher extremities than this for the chance to participate in the next two days of activities NASA has in store for us. I'm not here as a member of the press or because I've achieved anything of importance. I'm here because of a life-long fascination with space; and because, after years of
applying, I was finally chosen to take part in a NASA Social.
This series of events (open to anyone with a social media account) is described on NASA's website as a way to "provide NASA followers with the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes at NASA facilities and events and speak with scientists, engineers, astronauts and managers.” This particular event—the reason 80 strangers are happily stammering in the cold—is for VIP access to both the logistics and actual launch of the world's longest running series of Earth-observing satellites, known as the Landsat Data Community Mission (LDCM). That $855 million dollar payload will ride atop an Atlas V rocket to reach its projected polar orbit 400 miles above us.
The day's activities start when a serious looking man calls out each of our names and hands us our security passes; white pieces of paper with an intimidating warning about staying out of unauthorized areas and marked with an official stamp from the Department of the Air Force.
That warning will give me pause during the live NASA TV broadcast when, at 10:08 A.M. I tweet, "Hearing so many brilliant engineers, scientists, etc... And all I can think at this point is, do I need Sec Clearance to run to restroom." After introducing myself as a "Neurotic Artist," at the beginning of the broadcast, and realizing how truly awkward it sounded as I looked up to meet the confused eyes of that esteemed crowd, I thought it best to play it safe from there on. I eventually gather the courage to find what is easily the most immaculate restroom I've ever stepped foot in, and stop myself from tweeting something about the effectiveness of military toothbrushes.
The rest of the day proves to be a captivating whirlwind of unprecedented access to Mission Control, a ballistic missile museum, and a massive launch complex known as SLC-6 (pronounced as "Slick-Six"). By 3:30 P.M., my childlike enthusiasm for all things space has faded into exhausted indifference. I notice Amy, a travel blogger from Silicon Valley, passed out on the bus seat across from me and feel less guilty.
That afternoon sluggishness completely recedes the moment I catch a glimpse of the Atlas V rocket on our approach to SLC-3. "Look at that beautiful bird!" someone cries. Other than the actual launch, this is why we're all here. The promise of standing a stone's throw away from an actual launch vehicle.
I hear squeals as our bus crawls past a formidable security gate and stops before the grey structure that envelops the rocket like an industrial space barn. We shuffle out of the bus and marvel at the magnificent structure before us. We're so close I can actually hear the steady hiss of what I can only assume are the rocket's environmental controls.
A voice addresses the crowd. It's our surprise guest, the current Administrator of NASA, Charles Bolden. It's as if a rock star just appeared. My fellow attendees huddle around him. I'm uneasy in crowds so I back up as far as I can to soak it all in from a comfortable distance.
I still can't believe I'm standing here. I silently plead with my phone's near-dead battery life to just give me enough time to take one last shot of this unforgettable moment. My phone dies.
After everything this group experienced the previous day, our appetite for a successful launch is indescribable. I'm staring at the distant rocket with a pair of binoculars, leaning over the low wall of an outdoor clubhouse reserved for our exclusive use. It's the perfect viewing area, offering a direct line of sight to the launch complex (SLC-3) and a hilltop view of the surrounding park area.
Beyond these walls, a stream of new arrivals hunt for empty pockets of grass. An Air Force rock band belts out of a cover of Yes' “Roundabout,” adding to the park’s festival-like atmosphere. As showtime nears, rock music is replaced by a garbled transmission of status reports. A voice behind me proudly proclaims, "they've patched in Mission Control!" The romantic use of words like "patched-in" increases exponentially as the minutes tick on. If there's ever a time to use all those cool words heard in a lifetime's worth of space dramas — it's most certainly now.
A multitude of voices begins to sound-off a procession of mission readiness, one launch station after the other:
The affirmative sound-off’s reach a stirring crescendo when a deep, authoritative voice announces, "YOU HAVE PERMISSION TO LAUNCH." The crowd around me erupts into hoots, hollers, and applause. My spine tingles.
"T-minus 4 minutes and counting," the modulated voice pronounces. More tingles.
Ethan taps me on my shoulder to tell me that astronaut Piers Sellers is standing beside me. I accidentally crash into him as I back away to get a wide-shot of the crowd hovering over the wall. Piers brushes it off without giving it a second thought and turns his attention back to the launch complex. The countdown is now at "T-minus 1 minute and 50 seconds."
At "T-minus 1 minute and 20 seconds," the entirety of the crowd is DEAD SILENT. It has become so quiet I notice the faint hum of a prop plane passing somewhere above us. I’ll find out later why. I rush back over to my spot and notice that Piers has his wristwatch in his hands, pointed towards the stirring rocket. He begins to count down along with Mission Control, then studiously describes what's happening as the countdown dwindles to double digits. I quickly realize how perfect this is—fumble for my phone—and press`RECORD.
"15....10.....5, 4, 3, 2, 1—" A thick plume of white steam mushrooms under the orange fireball cascading behind the escalating rocket.
"Oh my god, that's slow!" remarks Pierce. And he's right. I'm immediately shocked by the difference in thrust between the Atlas V and the solid rocket boosters that helped lift the shuttle. Scattered camera clicks and squeals of excitement do little to break the collective rapture of the crowd. “Okay, now she’s tipping over to go south,” Piers continues. Someone with a sleepy drawl happily adds, “Here comes the sound...”
This is my favorite part of a launch. An experience that is nearly impossible to describe. What happens now is an immediate and lasting lesson on the speed of sound. Since we're 9 miles from the fiery mix of fuel and vapor that just ascended into the sky, it will take nearly one minute for the booming crackle of the rocket's engines to reach us. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. The Atlas V doesn’t shake my bones as much as the shuttle did —but it’s enough. The thunderous roar of the rocket’s thrust ricochets off the surrounding houses, making the accompanying narration from Mission Control an indecipherable sound effect that makes the experience that much more “science-fictiony.”
The rocket becomes a faint dot. The sound slowly fades, revealing sighs of relief that collectively say, “it’s okay to breathe now.” Those tempered emotions are obliterated by an uproarious explosion of applause the moment the garbled voice from Mission Control declares “ALL SYSTEMS NOMINAL.” It’s as if hundreds of people just did a collective somersault. "I'm sorry," says the girl sniffling behind me, trying to hold back the tears with her shirt. Someone calls attention to the bright parachutes floating behind us, a group jump from the prop plane that flew above us, undoubtedly timed as a launch photo-op for the free-falling skydivers. I turn my binoculars towards the faint dot. It slowly disappears.
With two days worth of space-related experiences now reverberating from such an epic close, I watch as my counterparts form bustling clusters filled with celebratory handshakes, high-fives and hugs. I see Joanne, a teacher from Southern California who’s wearing a blue flight-suit adorned with various mission patches. She’s recounting the experience with effusive hand gestures pointed towards the sky. There’s also Jessica who, like a female Patch Adams with youth and a sugar high, weaves in and out of the various clusters while wearing a rubber clown nose. While not officially invited to the event, she came with "The Roads," a group (I'm told) that follows these Socials. The other attendees regale each other with personal notes and passionate commentaries. It all feels like the conclusion of a wedding ceremony, just after the newlyweds have driven off.
"They did it!" exclaims Oscar, a young startup tech from South Florida. His tan face is flushed with a mixture of excitement and exhaustion. None of us look any different. We’re all clinging to the same ebbing high. I have no questions anymore. No concerns about the future of space travel or if the subject is even relevant anymore. I just want to experience this pure moment along with everyone else during the last remaining minutes of this NASA Social. The events of the past two days will never be forgotten. We are lanterns of joy, fueled by the spectacle of science.