Too often we who were the space-buffs of the 60s and 70s still find ourselves reverting to closet-like behavior. After all, in those days it was not “cool” to watch space stuff and it was worse to live as if you liked space stuff- so you had to be a sort of closet space-buff. Then came the years of the Space Shuttle and we all “came out.” It was okay to be a space-buff, to stay up all night watching EVAs and to stand on the bank of a river and watch a launch. Then came the end of the Shuttle and our nation’s wish to return to the moon was simply canceled by a president who made it un-cool again to look toward space. About the moon he questioned why should we go back to the moon and pointing at Buzz Aldrin, he said, “to be blunt, Buzz has already been there…” In other words America, why bother to go there again, or to go anywhere as far as he was concerned. Our space program appeared to wilt right in front of us.
It is hard to pull the plug on the will of the American people who want NASA to go into space. We have a desire to learn about our closest neighbor in the solar system- the moon. So it was that when NASA prepared to launch the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE probe, to the moon, many of us became interested in the mission. The probe is designed to study the “wisps” of the lunar exosphere and was scheduled to launch atop a Minotaur 5 Rocket from NASA’s Wallops Island facility on the Virginia coast.
Minotaur is derived from the Air Force Minuteman ICBM and consists of solid propellant stages. It was once intended to sit in silos around the United Sates and wait for the order to launch and destroy the nation’s enemies, now it has been extensively evolved for peaceful use. The Minotaur 5 has five stages and this would be its first chance to prove itself as a booster to send vehicles beyond earth orbit.
Launch was set for 11:27 PM on the night of September 6th, 2013 and it was said that if the weather was right a lot of people along the central east coast of the United States would be treated to a sight that people in Florida have been seeing for more than half a century. I decided that I would walk across the street to our community pier that stretches into Chesapeake Bay and watch from there. Although the launch site is just over 89 miles to the south I figured I would at least see something. Considering that the Minotaur is a solid propellant launch vehicle and they have a very bright exhaust flame it should be visible as long as the night remained clear.
Monitoring by way of my home computer and my subscription to SpaceflightNow, the countdown was smooth through the evening and the weather simply got better. As launch time neared even the high altitude winds aloft calmed being reported as just 32 knots at 90,000 feet. At T-7 minutes, I grabbed my binoculars and headed for the darkened pier. I felt the urge to “sneak” because if Obama got wind that I was going to watch a moon shot he may revoke my Obamacare or worse yet, have his goons at the IRS audit me. Moon shots are not approved as being politically correct. I was monitoring the countdown on my smart-phone, but as I got to the street, the connection was suddenly broken. Clearly the NSA now knew I was going to watch a moon shot, I may be doomed.
Still I snuck onto the unlit pier and found the spot where I watched the politically-approved Antares launch last spring. The fishing lights were turned off and the usual fishing crowd was strangely absent- perhaps they knew the dangers of watching a forbidden moon shot. As I stood there in the blackness trying to re-connect with my smart-phone, a voice from behind me suddenly said, “Don’t let me scare ya’.” I jumped a foot! For an instant I thought it was John Holdren from the president’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) who had come personally catch me and take me to the space-buff concentration camp on a charge of moon shot watching, so I could be re-educated. Instead it was an elderly man sitting on a bench in the dark. With his gray beard and prudent eyes he looked a bit like Obi-Wan Kenobi. It turned out that he too was there to watch the moon shot. He was a space-buff as well as a former NASA worker back in the old republic, before the dark times, before the empire.
I told the man in the darkness that I had lost the countdown on my smart phone as soon as I stepped from my house. He said that he too had tried to keep it on his iPad, but had lost the connection as soon as he stepped from his house. The NSA was surely onto us- only imperial storm snoopers are that precise.
Soon we were joined by two more moon shot watchers and then another three risked being sent to the re-education camps as our number on the pier grew to a total of seven. Looking toward the horizon the night remained clear with perhaps a touch of haze and a cool breeze that was blowing in off of the brackish water of the Chesapeake Bay. It reminded me a lot of darkened hours spent standing on the NASA causeway waiting to see STS-2 launch- back in the olden days when we had a Shuttle and the ability to launch US astronauts from US soil.
We timed ignition by our watches and at exactly 11:27 pm the horizon illuminated in a deep orange glow that looked as if a tiny sun were rising. The glow grew larger and larger until from its center a brilliant orange comet seemed to appear; the Minotaur was aloft. The collective word was “Wow!” I had thought we would be lucky to see just a streak, but instead the Minotaur was putting on a show. The flame grew longer as the rocket climbed and then began its tilt program. After 56.92 seconds of burn time staging took place. Even from 90 miles away the staging looked violent and abrupt in my binoculars. A reflexive gasp came from all of us watching. Glowing orange particles were briefly seen at separation and then the first stage, with its burning propellant still tailing off could be seen tumbling away for more than 40 seconds. The second stage pressed on and its engine plume grew even larger as the surrounding atmosphere became thinner. For a total of just over 77 seconds the stage pushed the LADEE into space. As the second stage burned out there was a 20 second coast period. Although Wallpos ground cameras show the flame fading, we saw the orange light clearly for all 20 seconds. Third stage ignition was just as spectacular as the previous stage except that the flame was now a yellow color. One odd characteristic of that initial third stage burn was a long visible trail that looked like a contrail, yet could not have been because the booster was simply too high. Soon the stage soon faded into a pinpoint of orange vanishing into the distance among the stars. That strange vapor trail, however, remained visible for several minutes.