Wednesday, July 2, 2014

NASA Tour and Launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base

It 4am as I write this. This is the second night in a row that I've been up this late – after sitting in the chill and fog hoping to see a rocket carry the OCO-2 (Orbiting Carbon Observatory) satellite into orbit. But let me start at the beginning.

I follow NASA on twitter. A few weeks ago, I saw a tweet to join NASA Social for a launch at Vandenberg Air Force base near Lompoc, CA. As I'm in LA, the three hour drive seemed very doable for the sake of seeing a launch. NASA wanted people with good social media reach to cover the event they know how important public relations are and they were essentially putting a call out for ambassadors. I didn't get in the first draw, but was informed a few days later that I'd been chosen off the wait list. After some crazy work rescheduling and the workings of a very cool boss, I was ready to go. I knew the launch was going to be awesome.

There is also the great little fact that I have some awesome writerly friends in Lompoc and getting together with them made for an awesome first night in town.

Monday morning started early with a live press conference. Various techs and scientists came out to explain what the OCO-2 was going to do and how it was going to get there. The satellite is designed to more precisely measure carbon in the atmosphere, its fluctuations, where it comes and goes, and provide data to answer some of those nagging questions about global warming. Hopefully we'll learn more about the why's and how's of what's happening and figure out a reasonable course of action.

This satellite is OCO-2 because the first OCO did not reach its intended orbit due to a fairing that didn't disengage. There is a 30-second launch window because this satellite has to reach a precise polar orbit so that it can lead a train of satellites that will work together to measure elements of the atmosphere.

After the press conference, they took us to see the largest launch site, SLC6. SLC = Space Launch Complex = slick. They actually prepped Slick 6 to launch a shuttle using the Enterprise as a model, but no shuttle was ever actually launched from Vandenberg.

Then we got treated to a barbecue lunch cooked up by some Air Force officers. Darn fine cooks. I went back for seconds. Evidently this was a major step up from other NASA Socials where they usually just get a box lunch. And we all know how those are.

The tour continued, taking us to see the last remaining Thor rocket and getting the opportunity to hear some great Cold War stories from Jay Pritchard. Throughout the tour it was obvious how much everyone here loved their work. It wasn't so much that they had to state it, it was the enthusiasm with which they spoke. We also toured a small museum covering the Atlas program, I believe. Forgive me if this isn't entirely accurate. Tons of information came our way yesterday.

Then we got to visit Slick 2, where the Delta II rocket that was to carry the OCO-2 would launch from. We got to see the rocket exposed, but not completely out, yet. And we heard from the head of NASA, former four time astronaut, Charles Bolden. The man has a great outlook and wonderful foresight. He's exactly the kind of person you want running NASA.

At that point, after a quick group shot in front of the rocket, they took us back to the gate and sent us off for naps so we could be awake and alert for the 2:56am launch. Of course, excitement made sleeping a challenge, but it was pretty necessary.

So at about 1:30am we all bundled up and followed the slightly dicey directions up the mountain to the Weather Station. Excitement abounded. We were told the story of the lucky peanuts and jars of Planters were passed around. Everyone who could get servie was tweeting like crazy. Mission control chatter played over the loud speakers. However, with Vandenberg being where it is, visibility was low. Let's say, really foggy. The weather station is five miles away from the launch pad. We knew there was a distinct chance we might not see much.

Then mission control starts checking off systems – Go –Go – Go. Everything looked good. We were cheering. Then, in the last minute, we here Hold – Hold – Hold. We held our breaths. More chatter. With only having a thirty second launch window, it didn't take long for them to decide to scrub the launch. We later found out that the water system that suppresses audio vibration and keeps the launch pad from catching on fire was not working properly. Those of us that were able to stay were told to come back the next night, same rocket time, same rocket channel.

So we spent a wonderful day in Lompoc. Mostly I worked on reading for Taos Toolbox which starts next week. (My next blog post will be from there.) Then the night came. Another early nap and 1:30am trek into the foggy darkness. The crowd was smaller this time, not everyone could stay. But we were still an enthusiastic bunch. The second night went off much like the first except this time the rocket launched. Listening to mission control, we knew when it happened and our eyes scanned the night sky, but the fog was just too dense. Then we heard the rumble of the rockets and looked even harder. But no, we were not destined to see anything. However it was a successful launch and we listened and cheered as each important milestone, including the separation of the fairing, was announced of the sound system. All in all we got more stories and had more fun and it was totally worth it to come back the second night, whether we saw anything or not. NASA rocks and they throw a great shindig. If you ever have the opportunity to participate, jump on it.

But it's late and I need to get a few hours of sleep before driving back to LA. Please forgive the lack of photos but they're still uploading. I'll try to add them later. If you check out my twitter feed you can follow the last couple of days - @TrinaMPhillips So for now, I will say, 'Good night'.


  1. How exciting to get to be there - even if it means less sleep. Sounds like it was an experience you'll never forget :)

  2. Very cool. Thanks for sharing. :)

  3. That is amazing! Thanks for sharing it. What an incredible experience.

  4. Radly! Sounds amazing. I can't wait to see the pictures. What great research!


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