Wednesday, August 24, 2011

NASA Juno Tweetup: day 2 - Juno launch

Read my previous blog entry in the "NASA Juno Tweetup" series: "Day 2 - guest speakers and demos"
Jump back to my first blog entry in the series:  "Preview of my report"

Photo courtesy of NASA

After a great day 1 of guest speakers and a Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral Air Force Station tour, and the guest speakers and demos on the morning of day 2, it was finally time to watch the launch of the Atlas V rocket with the Juno spacecraft.  I was quite excited for this, since it was my first live launch.  I have watched plenty online and on TV, but never in person.

After Bill Nye wrapped up the guest speaking portion of the morning, we took a short break and started to get ready for the planned launch time of 11:34am.  We had NASA TV on inside the Tweetup tent, all looked to be on track and the countdown was proceeding as planned.  We made our way out of the tent to the bleachers on the Launch Complex 39 Press Site lawn.  Only four miles away, we could see the tip of the Atlas V rocket peeking above the trees at Launch Complex 41.  It was amazing to think that less than 24 hours ago, I was standing next to a rocket that will be launching in minutes.

As we stood in the hot, humid Florida air waiting for the launch, some people in our group had their iPhones tuned to NASA TV and were giving us updates.  All of a sudden, at T-4 minutes, someone announced that the launch team had a problem with a helium leak on the ground, so the countdown was holding.  Apparently it wasn't a leak on the rocket, but rather a problem with a helium tank on the ground at Launch Complex 41 that's used to supply the Atlas V rocket.  The launch team had to meet to assess the severity of the leak, and discuss the effects of the leak with a rocket launching next to the tank.  This is when I sent out my first Tweet about the hold:
The launch is holding at the moment. Only 1 hour launch window today then we have to wait until tomorrow.
Since the launch window was only open for one hour, we were starting to get a tad bit nervous that they wouldn't be able to fix the leak, and they would have to scrub the launch and try again 24 hours later.  About 15-20 minutes later, we heard an update that the leak situation was still being discussed by the launch team, and now there was a boat that wandered into the hazard area cordoned off by NASA off the coast of Cape Canaveral.  A fishing boat clueless about the launch, or some people trying to get a good view of the launch from the ocean?  Not sure, but whoever it was, they were now part of the countdown hold until NASA can clear them out of the area.
RT : countdown clock has been reset with a new liftoff time of 12:13 p.m. EDT!
As my Tweet shows, we had hopes that the 12:13pm launch time would stick, but that came and went with the countdown still holding.  The launch window closes at 12:43pm, so we were about 30 minutes away.  By now many of us had moved out of the sun and back into the tent, to stand in front of the A/C units and watch the NASA TV feed for updates.  We could see the Atlas V rocket on the launch pad venting its liquid oxygen tank, ready to leap off the pad and into space.  Finally, at 12:18pm, the launch team polled all the different individuals involved with the launch, and the launch was a "go" for 12:25pm.
Nothing like cutting it close! Getting all of us people a bit nervous with a new launch time of 12:25 ET
My Tweet seemed a bit skeptical, but this seemed like the real deal.  The launch team determined the leak to be fixed and it was safe to proceed, and the range cleared out the lost boater.  We all made our way out to the lawn for the launch.  Since this was my first launch, I decided that my cameras would stay in my pocket for the initial liftoff, so I could soak in the experience.  My little Canon point and shoot couldn't capture the moment like the professional NASA photos anyway, so I'll just show you some of those.

As we approached 12:25pm, it was apparent that this would be a "go", and we wouldn't have to worry about a scrub.  We all chanted 5-4-3-2-1 and all of a sudden, the Atlas V rocket began to rise above the treetops.

Photo courtesy of NASA

This was an Atlas V version 551 rocket, so the five solid rocket boosters strapped to this thing made it just jump right off the pad.  Even though we were four miles away from the launch pad, this baby appeared to be moving very fast.  The Atlas V rocket achieved mach 1 about 30 seconds after launch.  It was an intense flame, almost too bright to look directly at.  A few seconds after launch, the sound came rolling across the Turning Basin lake and hit us.  It was a powerful sound like I had never experienced before.  Like I mentioned, I've watched many, many launches on TV and online, but microphones and speakers just can't accurately reproduce the sound, and the feeling of the sound, that you experience in person.  I loved feeling the rumble of the solid rocket boosters pushing Juno toward space.

Ten seconds after launch.  The black line you see on the left side of the smoke plume is a shadow cast by the plume.

Ten seconds after launch, when I snapped out of my awe induced trance, I pulled out my camera and shot the picture above.  The smoke plume was so thick it cast the black shadow you see on the left side of the photo.

The Atlas V rocket with the Juno spacecraft at the tip of the smoke plume

The rocket moved so fast, it was a tiny dot in the sky before you knew it.  We had perfect weather, with no clouds to obstruct our view of the Atlas V rocket heading up into space.  A handful of the last shuttle launches had to deal with low, thick cloud ceilings, so those people viewing the launch only got to see it for a few seconds before disappearing above the clouds.

Almost out of sight

It was very cool to watch something climb so high, it just disappeared into space.  I tried to capture the picture above just as the Atlas V rocket was too small to see.

The smoke plume was so tall, it was hard to get it all in the frame

After a successful launch, as the smoke plume started to slowly dissipate, all of the Tweetup attendees hung around the bleachers for a few minutes excitedly discussing what we just witnessed.  The adrenaline rush of watching the launch was great.

We all eventually made our way back in the tent, and many of us stood around the monitors showing the NASA TV feed.  About 30 minutes after launch, we watched NASA TV as the Juno spacecraft detached from the Centaur upper stage and started its five year journey to Jupiter.

Unfortunately, we were also faced with the fact that this was the end of the Tweetup's officially planned activities.  The two days flew by, but my NASA experience wasn't over quite yet.  Check out my next blog entry for highlights from my trip to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, the Astronaut Hall of Fame and the Endless BBQ.  I'll leave you with some Juno launch videos courtesy of NASA and United Launch Alliance:

Read my next blog entry in the "NASA Juno Tweetup" series:  "Day 2 - KSC Visitor Complex, Astronaut Hall of Fame and Endless BBQ" 
See all my pictures from the NASA Juno Tweetup

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