Thursday, September 15, 2016

The OSIRIS-REx launch at the Kennedy Space Center

Wow, two months since the last post! I guess I've adapted well the local culture of doing things "tomorrow". Also, after a few months even a life that's very different to the life before moving abroad starts to feel mundane and finding anything worth reporting becomes increasingly difficult.

Last week, however, I went to my first vacation outside Puerto Rico since coming here, which should be at least slightly more interesting story than what part of the fence the dogs broke this time. And we're doing radar observing, which includes a lot of waiting, so I need to keep awake somehow.

So the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission was launched last week and since the Arecibo Observatory was collaborating with the mission planning, our former group lead Mike Nolan, who still works for the mission, offered us invitations to see the launch. And who could say no to a rocket launch? Not me!

The launch was scheduled to happen on September 8th from the Cape Canaveral's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) with the 9th and 10th of September as reserve days in case the weather didn't permit the launch on the 8th. To cover the whole span of potential days we – I,  Patrick and Luisa – flew to Orlando on the 6th and had a return flight on the 11th. We rented a cubic Kia Soul; a car that I've been smirking at for the last few months because they look like something that your grandpa kept in the garage since the 60s. They're relatively common on the island. Anyway, it was a cheap and more spacious choice than the sleek but compact Hyundai we were offered with the same price so we took the Soul.

We stayed in a motel at Cocoa Beach, some 50 km west from Orlando. Cocoa Beach is a pretty basic tourist island with not much else than hotels, shops, restaurants, minigolf, and of course beaches. The drive to KSC is a bit less than 30 minutes. The invitation to the launch included a complementary four-day ticket to the space center's visitor complex, which is a fusion of a science museum and an amusement park.

For us, it was almost like a disneyland. So we skipped the real Walt Disney World and Universal Studios (although the new Harry Potter world was pretty tempting) and whatever else Orlando offers and just went to the KSC visitor center every day. The first day we spent in just the Atlantis exhibition. I've visited KSC when I was 11 years old, and don't remember anything else than the bus tour, but I think that I can pretty safely say that there's been significant changes in 16 years. After all, in modern times 16 years is a long time for technologic advancements and that's what NASA's all about. Just the entrance to the exhibit takes the visitors to a cinematographically impressive journey through the shuttle's history ending with the revelation of the shuttle from behind the movie screen.

The main exhibition: The Atlantis space shuttle

Did you know that if your car engine were as efficient as a space shuttle engine,
it would be the size of a loaf of bread and would cost $100? Now you know!

The exhibition includes both simple games and pure information about anything regarding astronauts or space shuttles and rockets, most info screens being in some way interactive. I have to say, the congratulating text of the astronaut games, "Great job! Maybe working for NASA could be in your future", does feel different when you already get your salary from NASA!

The closest thing to an amusement park ride was the shuttle launch simulator, in which the visitors could experience how it would feel like to be an astronaut to be shot in space in a tiny metallic tube. Just without the g-forces or the tingling fear that the rocket may explode any second. So it was fun in more a cute than a super-exciting way. But despite all the modern technology, our group's favorite attraction turned out to be a 20-meter-long slide that also adults were fully allowed to use.

The grand event, the launch, took place in a nicest possible weather, in the very beginning of the launch window, at 7:05pm local time. The number of launch guests was in total ~8000, from which maybe 1500-2000 people were in the same viewing point as we so transporting the crowds to the viewing places started already two hours before the launch. While waiting, we were able to visit the Saturn V -exhibition (very impressive!). The actual size of the space rockets is always difficult to comprehend because usually you only see them in pictures without a proper scale or from a very far distance. Standing next to one is whole another story.

The Saturn V -exhibition was dedicated mainly to the Moon flights.

People waiting for the launch in Banana Creek viewing point.

The launch itself was breathtaking! We were pretty far from the launch pad but as soon as the countdown reached zero, you could see a bright light igniting in the horizon, and in a few seconds hear and feel the roar of the rocket that keeps rising and rising, leaving but a column of smoke below. In the column, you can see the gradient of white to maroon as the sun sets below the horizon behind our backs.

The OSIRIS-REx was lift to space with an Atlas V -rocket.
If you're interested in what's the OSIRIS-REx mission is about, its schedule or any technical information, you can find it on the mission's excellent home pages at