Wallops Island, Virginia – Cygnus Launch Event
Recently, I was intrigued by an offer on my social media feed that I could not refuse. It read, have you ever attended a night launch before? Now’s your chance! Today is the last day to apply to attend our upcoming #NASASocial event at Wallops. We are inviting up to 50 people to travel to Wallops Island, Virginia to view the launch of the Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo spacecraft on November 15th, apply today.
Without hesitation I applied. Three days later I was selected to be part of this unique group. That is when the tough part began for me. Telling my wife that I had applied to go away without her and without asking for her consent first was not my finest moment. However, she understood it was one of those rare opportunity’s that come along and she told me I should go.
The emails with instructions and our schedule soon followed. I was truly impressed by the organization and amount of access the social group was being given. Not only would we be attending a nighttime rocket launch, we would also be attending and participating in briefings, meeting special guests a former astronaut, visiting the Horizontal Integration and Launch Facilities, Wallops Flight Facility hanger, the Sounding Rocket Assembly Building and Wallops Range Control.
Our tour would take place at the Wallops Flight Facility (WFF), located along Virginia’s eastern shore. Wallops Island is only a few miles from the Maryland State line and neighboring Chincoteaque Island. The Wallops Island Flight Facility is an extension of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland. The facility is a unique partnership between NASA, the U.S. Navy, Virginia Space, Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) and its customers. NASA owns the physical land of Wallops Island and MARS owns launch pad 0A from where the rocket will be launched.
The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Wallops Island Flight Facility began as U.S. Naval Auxiliary Air Station Chincoteague in 1943. A young naval aviator by the name of George Herbert Walker Bush trained here and reportedly was reprimanded for buzzing the home of a young woman that he had met at a dance.
For those who chose the early arrival check-in on Tuesday, we were invited to the visitors center theater for a ‘what’s onboard briefing’. The presentation was streamed by NASA on their social media outlets. Audience members were encouraged to participate and ask questions of the presenters. This was quite eye opening as the presenters revealed how important it is and why experiments are conducted in zero gravity.
Among the six experiments onboard the Cygnus spacecraft being sent to the International Space Station (ISS) is a Refabricator. This device is an integrated 3D printer which recycles waste plastic materials into high-quality 3D-printer filament. The filament could enable sustainable fabrication, repair, and recycling on long-duration space missions. There are also two experiments involving solidifying cement in space with potential application for structures being built on Mars and the Moon. The medical experiment onboard involves growing crystals to fight Parkinson’s disease. The CASIS PCG-16 investigation grows large crystals of an important protein known as Leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (LRRK2) in microgravity for analysis back on Earth. The LRRK2 crystals grown in gravity here on Earth are too small and too compact to study, making microgravity an essential part of this research. This LRRK2 protein is implicated in development of Parkinson’s disease, and defining its shape and morphology may help scientists better understand the pathology of the disease and develop therapies to treat it.
After the briefing we were free to head outside or to the roof top viewing area of the visitors center to observe the source of the swarming bee sound that had been present for about the last hour. The source of the sound was the presence of eight U.S. Navy E-2C Hawkeyes and two C-2A(R) Greyhounds. U.S. Navy squadrons VAW 120 ‘Greyhawks’ and VAW123 ‘Screwtops’ were conducting Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP) at the Wallops Flight Facility. The U.S. Navy conducts four, two week visits a year to work up the ‘nuggets’ before they deploy aboard a carrier. As many as six aircraft were airborne at any one time. They went around for hours in a tower pattern without stopping or raising their gear.
On Wednesday morning it was back to the visitors center to meet our NASA social guide Chelsey Ballarte and the rest of the social media group. First up was a briefing and meet and greet with our social group. The social media group was made up of 50 participants from all walks of life and all consider themselves space enthusiasts. I found the social media group be a fantastic cross section of people with whom I really enjoyed sharing this experience with. The geographical make-up of the group was mostly from the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast United States. Several people did travel from other locations such as Puerto Rico and as far west as Houston Texas.
We also were introduced to our NASA social guide, Chelsey Ballarte. The tour she put together for us was jam packed with events and we didn’t waste anytime getting underway. Our group was given a security briefing and sweep before boarding our bus for our escort to Wallops Island. As we drove along the causeway several structures came into view including the NG-10 (Northrop Grumman) Antares rocket atop launch pad 0A.
The Antares rocket is a cooperative effort between Northrop Grumman, Energomash and Orbital ATK. Energomash is a Russian rocket engine manufacturer who is supplying the two RD-181 engines for the Antares rocket. Antares is the delivery vehicle for Cygnus which is the spacecraft.
Northrop Grumman developed the Cygnus advanced maneuvering spacecraft to provide cargo delivery services to the International Space Station. These resupply flights are under the Commercial Resupply Service (CRS) contract with NASA.
Cygnus consists of a service module and a pressurized cargo module. It is being used to carry crew supplies, spare equipment and scientific experiments to the space station. The pressurized cargo module is manufactured by Thales Alenia Space of Italy specifically for Cygnus.
Our first stop was at Northrop Grumman’s Horizontal Integration Facility known as the HIF. Upon opening the door the group was surprised to be only several feet from Antares rocket NG-11 being assembled for its scheduled April 2019 mission. We were not only given unprecedented access to the NG-11 Antares rocket but Northrop Grumman personnel were ready to answer all of our questions as well.
Northrop Grumman has a tradition of naming its Cygnus spacecraft in honor of the pioneers of NASA. For the NG-10 mission, Cygnus was named in honor of Astronaut John W. Young. The S.S. John Young was named after NASA’s longest serving astronaut and pioneer in the field of human spaceflight. John Young retired from the U.S. Navy as a Captain after 25 years of service. He joined NASA in September of 1962 and began a career of firsts. He crewed the first manned Gemini mission, Gemini 3. He went onto become the Commander of Gemini 10. He was the Command Module Pilot of Apollo 10 and the Commander of Apollo 16. He would go onto command the first space shuttle mission STS-1, testing the Orbiter Columbia. John Young completed his final flight as Spacecraft Commander of STS -9, the first spacelab mission. He spent a total of 835 hours in space before being named Chief of Space Shuttle branch and later Chief of Astronaut Office before his retirement in 2004. John W. Young passed away on January 5, 2018 and his bravery and record of “firsts” pushed the boundaries of human space exploration.
For the NG-10 mission, Cygnus will rendezvous with and berth with the ISS. It will remain berthed for approximately two months. The cargo and experiments will be offloaded and replaced with disposable cargo from the ISS. Cygnus will then unberth from the ISS, reposition and deploy three CubeSats. Upon completion of its secondary mission, Cygnus will perform a safe, destructive reentry into Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.
Before long it was time for us to get back to our bus and head off to the launch pad 0A where NG-10 awaited us and its own destiny with the International Space Station. To everyones surprise we kept approaching NG-10 at launch pad 0A. Eventually we stopped and were allowed to exit the bus approximately 800 feet from NG-10. I’ve taken tours at the Kennedy Space Center and I have never been as close as I was here to a launch pad with a rocket ready to go on sitting atop of it.
Once again we were encouraged to take photos and ask questions of the NASA, MARS and Northrop Grumman representatives. The Social Media group being space enthusiast were engaged and asked intuitive and insightful questions all day long. I believe by being with this group I learned much more than being with traditional media.
Launch Pad 0A sits within several hundred feet of the Atlantic Ocean with little more than a reinforced sand dune protecting it from the ocean waves. The launch pad sits atop reinforced pilings with a ramp leading up to it. The Antares rocket is trucked there before being raised to the vertical position for launch. The site has a liquid fueling facility, flame trench, and deluge system for cooling and sound suppression.
Beyond launch pad 0A is MARS launch pad 0B more commonly known as launch complex 2. It is currently utilized to launch Minotaur rockets. Rocket Lab is bring their Electron rocket to launch complex 2 for a 2019 quarter 3 launch.
We moved back several hundred feet to camera station U-80 where NASA and the media had set up their remote cameras to cover the launch. We were met by NASA photographers who explained their photography techniques and tips for catching the launch before heading back to the main side.
The afternoon began with the Wallops Flight Facility hanger tour. We were greeted by NASA pilot Rich Rogers inside of a hanger which was packed with a HC-130H Hercules (former U.S. Coast Guard Hercules), P-3B Orion (former U.S. Navy) and a B-200 King Air. NASA also operates several C-23 Sherpa’s from WFF. NASA acquires most of their aircraft from the military once they are retired from military service which is an effective cost saving measure for NASA. As we traveled around to Wallops Flight Facility I noticed there were multiple C-23, C-130, P-3 aircraft carcass’ stored around the airfield for spare parts.
We moved next onto the sounding rocket assembly building. Just what is a sounding rocket and where does the name come from you may be asking yourself? Sounding rockets take their name from the nautical term “to sound”, which means to take measurements. Since 1959, NASA has sponsored space and earth science research using sounding rockets to test instruments used on satellites and spacecraft. They also are used to provide information about the Sun, stars, galaxies and Earth’s atmosphere and radiation. With the capability to fly higher than many low Earth orbiting satellites and the ability to launch on demand, in many instances sounding rockets offer the only means to study specific scientific phenomena of interest to many researchers. Unlike instruments on board most orbital spacecraft or in ground-based observatories, sounding rockets can place instruments directly into regions where and when the science is occurring. The mobile nature of the program enables researchers to conduct missions from strategic vantage points worldwide. Sounding rockets offer calibration and validation flights for many space missions, particularly solar observatories.
NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia is host to about 25 sounding rocket launches annually and is very proud of its 98 percent launch rate. The Sounding Rocket Program has assisted the nation’s space program by providing important technical, scientific and educational contributions.
Sounding rockets are also launched worldwide by the Wallops Flight Center at Poker Flat Research Range Alaska, White Sands Missile Range New Mexico, Andova Rocket Range Norway and Esrange in Sweden. Launch operations are also conducted from mobile sites set up by the Wallops Test Range. Mobile campaigns have also been conducted from Australia, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and the Kwajalein Atoll. The mobile capability offered by the Wallops Test Range allows scientists to conduct their science where it occurs.
The initial tour of the sounding rocket assembly building was impressive with equipment being readied for shipping. However, to tour an actual machine shop while in use, turning massive blocks of metal on lathes or cutting them with CNC machines was unforgettable. With the exception of the nosecone and the winglets, nearly the entire sounding rocket is manufactured here at the Wallops Flight Facility.
The last stop of the day was the Range Control Center. We were invited in and allowed to sit at the actual consoles being used for the Antares launch scheduled in a matter of hours. The Wallops Flight Facility’s Range Control Center (RCC) provides mission control, tracking, and real-time range safety support for suborbital and orbital launches, and aircraft programs.
The biggest wall in the RCC is covered from top to bottom and side to side with video monitors. The feeds included multiple views of launch pad 0A, downrange radar images that scanned for maritime and aircraft traffic within the launch area.
We discussed the parameters, protocols and standard operating procedures between NASA and it’s partners and customers for a safe launch and flight. We were shown the multiple stations where an abort can be commanded for. Such a situation could be called for if the vehicle were to deviate from its projected telemetry.
As we returned to the visitors center auditorium we learned that the launch of NG-10 had slipped 23 1/2 hours due to the weather.
We were met by former NASA Astronaut Robert Curbeam who was to be our final speaker of the day. Mr. Curbeam is currently the Vice President of Business Development for the Space Systems Group of Northrop Grumman Innovative Systems.
You have to love a person who introduces himself by saying I was Radar Intercept Officer for F-14’s while I was in the Navy. Recognizing the blank faces, he seizes the moment and follows up by asking who here has seen the movie Top Gun? With a large showing of hands he says to the group, “I was Goose” to a round of smiles and laughs.
Robert Curbeam grew up nearby in Woodlawn Maryland and attended the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. His career has many career milestones including being named Fighter Wing One Radar Intercept Officer of the Year in 1989. He currently holds the record for the most spacewalks during a single spaceflight. During the STS-116 mission, he completed four spacewalks.
Robert Curbeam is a phenomenal speaker and he took our question and answer session well beyond our scheduled time allotted with him.
I had the honor of the final question of the afternoon. I asked Robert how much more difficult is it to bring back a vehicle from space compared to what a naval aviator would have to go through to conduct a night landing on a carrier with an F-14? He answered, I was never a pilot, but having said that I have a lot of friends that are. Talking to every single naval aviator I’ve ever spoke with, they all said landing a shuttle is way easier than landing on a carrier at night. Believe me having seen that two hundred thirty some times, I believe them. Because coming back from a space flight is very benign. Sitting there watching a deck pitch 40’ in the north Atlantic, north of the arctic circle, now that’s scary. I’ve seen 60 foot waves in a typhoon on a LPH in the south Pacific. When green water is coming over the bow of a ship that is 40 feet tall, that’s scary. Coming back in the shuttle after a 13 day mission, that’s happy.
On Friday morning the launch slipped once again another 23 1/2 hours to Saturday due to weather again. Many of us had obligations and unfortunately I had to depart before the launch of NG-10. Even though I missed the actual launch in person, my social group were closest to the launch at just over 2 miles from the rocket. The group that remained was treated to a spectacular and successful night time launch. Two members of the group, Robb Webb and Gordon Campbell have shared their photos with me for this story.
I can not thank enough all the members of NASA Social Group NG-10, Chelsey Ballarte and all the people at WFF and Northrop Grumman for a spectacular time. I want to acknowledge my fellow space enthusiasts Nelson Quispe-Benavides, Karen Bogoski, Maureen Detrick, John Gould, Maggie Hlywa, Rob Webb, Brandon Porter, John Entwistle, Martínez-Velázquez, Wesley George, Scott Adam, Gordon Campbell, Johnny Wax, Mark Breen, Janet Heaton, John Adkins and Keelan Hamilton for making this a memorable experience. Then there was the heart and soul of the group Jarin Chu and Elise Gibson. These two women really made this experience fun and raised the groups social media presence. These two dove into each stop of the tour by trying on gear, taking rocket selfies, asking questions and just making everyone else smile.
I can’t wait to apply for another NASA Social and hopefully get to witness the launch. I hope you take my advise and join me there.