T-minus … and counting

Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

As I start this post, I have NASA TV up on one screen and the SpaceX webcast on another as the countdown has proceeded through the successful launch of the NOAA JASON-3 satellite aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenburg AFB in California, and successful payload deployment.  You couldn’t actually see the much of rocket on the pad as Vandenburg was shrouded in ground fog this morning, but on they counted and off they flew.  I suspect that if this had been a manned launch, we wouldn’t even have been discussing a launch today with the weather the way it was.

SpaceX, as you might imagine, did a much better job of coverage of their rocket in their live webcast than NASA TV did, including great on board live video during the entire boost phase.  Both feeds did, however, have some awesome ground tracking footage of the boost phase from one of Vandenburg’s long range missile tracking cameras.

Yeah, I’m a space geek.  I’m just barely old enough to remember some of the later Gemini missions and basically all of Apollo.  When Neil Armstrong took his one small step, I was all of 8 years old.  Rockets, spacecraft and the general science and physics surrounding all of it have fascinated me endlessly from my earliest years.  I was born almost dead center on the calendar between Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight on May 5, 1961 and John Kennedy’s speech to congress on May 25, 1961 where he asked for funding for a gigantic project with the words “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

So I basically grew up with the old NASA space programs in my awareness from a very early age.  I was the kid who built LEM and CSM models.  I was the kid who tracked Apollo missions with construction paper cutouts of the CSM/LEM stack and the earth and the moon with the classic figure 8 flight path drawn in crayon, and moving the spacecraft on the paper whenever Walter Cronkite had an update of how far away from earth they were.  I, like millions of others, listened intently to Jack King, NASA PAO and Launch Commentator, with that classic Brighton Massachusetts accent,  as he kept us up to date on the details of tank pressurizations and system checks and the rest – every announcement ending (as they still do to this day) with the phrase “… at T-Minus [minutes and seconds] this is Apollo Launch Control”.

I’ve continued to have a strong interest in the program through the end of Apollo, Skylab, Apollo-Soyuz, Shuttle, ISS and all of the various unmanned probes, landers and orbiters that NASA-JPL and other agencies have sent up over the decades.  A prized possession hanging in my living room is a 30th anniversary moon landing poster that I was able to have signed, in person, by Buzz Aldrin.  One of the coolest experiences recently – back a few years ago when I stopped off in Houston on my way from Phoenix to Florida to see mom for Christmas and took the Level 9 Tour at the Johnson Space Center.  If you have a chance to do this, DO IT!  It’s totally worth it.

What a lot of folks aren’t aware of is that in that same 1961 Congressional speech, President Kennedy asked for funding for more than just the moon shot.  He also asked for a total of $125M to accelerate “… the use of space satellites for world-wide communications” and for the weather bureau to ” … help give us at the earliest possible time a satellite system for world-wide weather observation.”  So right along with setting the stage for Neil, Buzz and the others, at the same time, a big push was given to the predecessors of our modern weather and climate forecasting technologies.

So today, in the long line of satellites that have been providing earth observation for over 55 years, JASON-3 goes up to provide more coverage for global sea surface analysis.  It’s now properly deployed, healthy and heading for it’s final polar orbit.  It joins a significantly large constellation of NOAA and NESDIS spacecraft that provide a long list of earth observation and earth science services.  The fact that SpaceX once again showed a perfect Falcon 9 launch is awesome as well.  I can’t wait to see the first launch of the Falcon Heavy booster later this year.

As you watch the SpaceX webcasts, live from the SpaceX control center in California, you note a great deal of enthusiasm in the room.  I recently watched the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch for Orbcomm, where they absolutely NAILED the landing of the first stage (looks like they didn’t manage that today on board the drone ship “Just Read the Instructions” though).  During the Orbcomm mission there was considerable celebration, high fiving, shouting, hugging and general good times every time a flight milestone or step was successfully completed.  It was all great and I congratulate the SpaceX team for their amazing achievements.  But the thought that kept running around in the back of my head, with a hearty chuckle, was “… that would never fly in Gene Krantz’s MOCR.”  Back in the day, the cigars and celebration weren’t supposed to come out until the final, successful completion of the mission.  There are more than a few flight control loop audio recordings out there where you can hear Kranz uttering words to the effect of “OK now, all flight controllers, let’s settle down …”

But, watch most of these launches and missions today and you’ll see a bunch of extremely smart and talented young people working with the very same intensity that the “old guys” did.  You won’t see many, if any, neckties on the non-NASA folks, and of course they’re not all guys anymore,  but they’re of about the same age as the young men who worked mission control in the 60’s were and they work with the same level of dedication to mission.  Millennials launching rockets?  Maybe.  But really smart and hard working millennials, certainly.

And today, sticking to tradition, if you watched the NASA coverage, you could hear the good ol’ PAO and Launch Commentator intone “… at T-Minus thirty eight minutes, sixteen seconds, this is Falcon Nine launch control.”

But I can almost see good ol’ Gene Kranz sitting in the back of the room rolling his eyes every time a mission milestone is reached and the entire room bursts out cheering as if the home team just scored a goal.  Of course, those 1960’s NASA boys all wore white shirts, narrow dark ties and pocket protectors, too.  And they were allowed to smoke in mission control.  So times, they do change.

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