In May 2018 we were invited to watch the launch of an Antares rocket carrying the Cygnus capsule that was carrying an experiment that J worked on at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. This experiment, a tiny “cubesat” called CubeRRT, would be launched to the International Space Station (ISS) by private company Orbital ATK from Wallops Island, Virginia. We would be VIP guests, along with a select 200 others. We were determined to be there, no matter how inconvenient it was going to be to travel to the East coast for a weekend!
The launch window was 3 days, at very specific times of the middle of the night. The first launch window was in the early hours of Sunday, May 20. To minimize time off work, we initially planned to fly to Norfolk, Virginia on Saturday morning, drive up to the launch overnight, then fly back on Sunday. No hotel, no sleep. Thankfully, on Thursday, May 17, the launch was pushed to the early hours of Monday, May 21, so we rapidly changed our travel arrangements.
Thus, on Saturday, May 19, we flew from Burbank to Baltimore BWI (changing in Phoenix), arriving after dark. We spent the night in the Holiday Inn airport hotel.
It was a hot and sweaty morning as we drove down to Chincoteague, Virginia, a well-known tourist destination. The drive took a couple of hours and the scenery along the way was verdant.
On arrival we went to the town’s community center to check in with the launch people. After lunch at the nearby Sea Star Café we came back for the 2pm briefing by Orbital ATK. Everyone was upbeat and there was lots of chatter in the hall as friends and colleagues found each other and said hello.
At the briefing, we heard from a variety of VIPs, including the CEO of Orbital and the new NASA Administrator Jim Bridensteine, about Cygnus’s resupply mission. The Cygnus capsule separates from the Antares rocket at the appropriate altitude and continues up to the ISS bringing supplies for the astronauts, as well as scientific experiments (such as CubeRRT). It later takes away the trash (and burns up in the atmosphere).
After the briefing a member of the CubeRRT team the produced the best mission swag ever: a specially-commissioned case of CubeRRT beer!
At around 4:30pm we headed to our hotel – the Comfort Suites. We had dinner at the highly-recommended Bill’s PRIME Seafood and Steaks. Then, since we were technically on vacation, we sampled the local ice-cream place, Island Creamery, where we got a “single scoop” each, which turned out to be more like half a pint. It was delicious!
With that, we tried to have an early night, turning out the light at 7:30pm. Very soon, our 1:00am alarm went off.
So very early Monday morning, we walked in the darkness back to the community center, arriving at 1:45am as instructed. This time the hall was filled with bleary eyed people, some dozing. Some of J’s collaborators had pulled an all-nighter so were more awake than us.
We sat around for over an hour until we were shuffled onto different buses according to US citizen status. Our bus was dark and quiet and soon snoring could be heard. The bus didn’t move for another 30 minutes but then we set off in a convoy with a police escort. We really felt like VIPs at this point!
It was about a 20-minute ride to the launch viewing area and we got there at about 4:00am. In the marquee tent everyone fell on the coffee and donuts that were lavishly spread on several tables. There were TVs showing a live feed from the launch.
We headed outside into the darkness to see the rocket in real life, several miles away across the water, lit up with massive floodlights. The launch veterans had already set themselves up on the small set of bleachers with a good view of the countdown clock. We novices just hung around on the grass and used phone apps to monitor the time. The voice from the control center was broadcast over loudspeakers.
(Apologies for the poor photos – we were traveling hand luggage only, so no tripod, or long lens)
At this point, after all this effort, we still didn’t know if the launch was going ahead. There were two 5 minute windows this early morning. It soon became clear that the first window was scrubbed.
Then, after what seemed like no time at all, the voice from mission control was starting a 10-second countdown. It was about 4:45am. When he got to zero we all held our breath and nothing happened. Then about a second later there was a flash of light from the launch pad. The rocket took off exactly like in a cartoon and everything went really bright. The rumble of noise from the rocket came after about 10 seconds and was rib-cage shaking.
The rocket quickly entered the low cloud deck but we could see it peeking in and out. After the initial cheer we all stood in open-mouthed silence, watching it the whole way up until it reached orbit, a process which apparently took about 5 minutes, but seemed like only 10 seconds. When mission control announced the separation of Cygnus from the Antares rocket there was another cheer – the launch was a success.
With nothing else to see outside, we all crammed back into the tent and champagne and cake was passed around. Several people gave speeches, which we couldn’t hear over the hubbub.
Then it was time to head back. The chatter on the bus was animated and people were replaying the launch on their phones. We said goodbye to J’s colleagues then went back to the hotel, walking in the door at 6am as the sun was rising.
We had a short nap then packed up and hit the road back to Baltimore, back to Burbank via Phoenix, and got home in Pasadena at 10:30pm on Monday night, absolutely shattered.
Like our total solar eclipse adventure, this was a lot of traveling for a short event, but it was well worth it, and to be invested in its success made it even more special.