Watching Antares launch feeds writer’s ‘inner nerd’

Antares blasts off from Wallops Island in Virginia Wednesday. (Special to the Delaware State News/Rich King)

Editor’s note: Delaware State News Outdoors columnist Rich King, whose columns appears every Thursday, shares his first-person experience at Wallops Island.

WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. — On Wednesday at NASA’s Wallops Island flight facility (WFF) the Antares vehicle carried the NG-11 Cygnus Spacecraft into space to deliver cargo and experiments to the International Space Station.

If you haven’t had the chance to see this rocket launch, you need to get down to Wallops Island and watch. It is a bit surreal watching that much weight lift off a pad and head skyward. By the time you realize you just saw a rocket lift off it is miles above the planet. By the time the sound hits us at the media viewing area, she is well underway.

For me this is something that feeds my inner nerd — I love anything space related. Being able to go to the pad and see the rocket up close and personal was a real treat.

I have friends that were setting up remote cameras near the pad to get those up close and personal shots of the launch. I can not wait to see what they captured. Now, I have to spend some money and get my own remote set up for future launches.

These folks are serious about getting these shots, setting up multiple cameras for each phase of the launch. They spend days deciding where to place the cameras based on wind. That big blast cloud will fog out any pictures if the cameras are in that area.

All spacecrafts are named after individuals that have made significant impacts on the aerospace industry. Northrop Grunman named the NG-11 Cygnus spacecraft after Astronaut Roger Chaffee.

Spacecraft is lowered down to load up cargo, a new way NASA is doing things for timely experiments and sensitive cargo, such as mice.

Chaffee was a member of the Apollo I mission crew. He and his crew’s job was to test and evaluate the system. tracking, and control facilities. When the crew performed a test launch sequence a fire broke out in the command module. The crew was lost in the fire. Chaffee was inducted into the US Astronaut Hall of Fame in 1997.

Wednesday was a beautiful day for a launch. There was a less than a five percent chance the launch would be scrubbed. I have seen many a launch and when they get scrubbed it can take days to have a successful one. There is only a short window for the launch time — sometimes it is only minutes. NASA has to coordinate the launch so the craft can rendezvous with the space station. On Wednesday, April 17, there was a six minute window. When we got down to a minute to go we knew there was no turning back, unless something went south in 60 seconds.

I have attended launches scrubbed due to boats in the area, duck hunters twice, and system failures. One launch took five days too finally light the fire and send her up.

The craft will rendezvous with the space station Friday morning and astronauts on the station will capture the craft and dock. There are only supplies and experiments on the craft, except this time around there are some live passengers. Mice are being used for an experiment.

If you want to see something really wild look up the International Space Station on You tube and check out the videos of the mice. They really seem to like their zero G environment. There were a lot of jokes at the press conference about Space Mice.

ThinSat used by students. The devices are mini satellites deployed for their experiments.

Antares is the launch vehicle or rocket and the Cygnus Spacecraft carries the payload — 7,700 pounds of cargo to be exact. For this launch, after the spacecraft was upright at the pad, it was lowered so the cargo could be loaded. This is something new NASA is doing for timely cargo that needs to be kept to temperature. They literally use the same equipment used to put people on planes; that was very interesting to watch. (Again my inner nerd went all schoolgirl over this visit.)

We get to tour the facility where the spacecraft is assembled before it is take to the launch pad. You are not allowed to have phones or key fobs in that building, apparently a signal could set off the live booster rocket on site, in the room with you. NASA does not fool around when it comes to their equipment. I’m not a fan of sitting next to a booster rocket that fires up in a very large room, or any room for that matter.

One of the experiment sets on the spacecraft are the ThinSats, which are small satellites used by students to conduct their own experiments in space. Data is transferred directly to the classroom in real time by our communication satellites.

Seventy schools in Virginia participate in this program, a part of the STEM curriculum. Students in grades fourth through 12th send up these Thinsats to conduct their own experiments. This is an amazing way to introduce kids to the space program and much more. Within a school year, students can design, build, and fly their satellite.

The press lines up to get the shot. This is as close as you can get to view the launch.

There are a metric ton, literally, of experiments conducted on the International Space Station. Astronauts are studying everything you could probably think of that will benefit the space programs in the future as well as here on earth. Medicine is a big deal in space as far as the effects on Astronauts and the benefits learned that can be applied here on earth. That is one phrase I hear a lot in the press conferences, “Here on Earth” — that just excites me to no end.

Astronauts are growing food up there for long term stays in space since they have to eat. Self sustaining systems are very important for long term space travel. The Cygnus craft will be loaded with any trash that needs to return to earth and then sent back. Trash created in space is returned to earth. Space is a carry in, carry out environment.

If you want to learn more about the Cygnus program, Wallops and all of the experiments. Get online and search the Google. There is a wealth of information out there about up there. I could spend hours just telling you about my experience this week, but the paper doesn’t have enough space.

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