What was happening out-of-sight during Sunday’s SpaceX launch of Jason-3? These are my stories from reporting live on white rocket engulfed in a fog bank but without the internet connectivity to actually update in real-time.
Falcon 9 blasting off with Jason-3 aboard on January 17, 2016. Image credit: SpaceX
Find your way to a rocket launch at sometime in your life. The overwhelming power of a rocket’s bone-rattling jar as it surges free of the bounds of gravity is like nothing else, impressive even when weather smothers any chance of seeing the licking flames. But what happens on base during a launch, out of sight of the webcasts and cut off from public access?
I was at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California this weekend to cover the Jason-3 launch. This is the story of what I experienced.
At least it’s a very pretty rocket? Image credit: Mika McKinnon
Saturday afternoon, a pack of photographers from news agencies around the country gathered at Vandenberg’s south gate. We were wrangled by an unshakeably cheerful yet authoritative Air Force technical sergeant, Tyrona Lawson, into a convoy of vans. The vans bounced through the vegetated dunes of Vandenberg, slipping past unoccupied pads until reaching SpaceX’s west coast home.
We unloaded on a bluff overlooking the pad, the Pacific Ocean providing a stunning natural backdrop for the towering edifice of scaffolding and rocket. Photographers piled out to claim spaces for their remote camera setups. We spread out, but only a little bit — the headland is bounded by fragile endangered species, and more threateningly, by rattlesnakes and unexploded ordinance. Spaces claimed, photographers made their best guess about the next day’s weather and launch timing to set up their cameras for the hopefully-perfect shot.
This was as close as we got. At more than half a mile away and lacking the powerful zoom lens of a professional photographer, any chance I had of ogling the Falcon 9’s landing legs were utterly dashed.
Rocket!!! Image credit: Mika McKinnon
Unexpectedly, representatives from NASA, NOAA, and the National Weather Service (NWS) joined us on the hill for a final prelaunch question session. I seized it eagerly, having been unable to attend or even tune into Friday’s press conference live due to scheduling conflicts.
It’s hard to frame the Jason-3 satellite as an exciting mission. By design, the ocean topography monitor isn’t cutting-edge technology. It carries variations of the same altimeters used since 1992 by TOPEX/Poseidon, Jason-1, and Jason-2. But it’s critically important to providing data for daily marine operations, improving forecasting models, and tracking long-term change.
Data from the Jason mission is used in daily operations in everything from commercial fisheries to search and rescue. But it’s also used to improve forecasting models, and increasing our understanding of hurricane intensification.
Kevin Cooley of the National Weather Service answered our questions while admiring the view. Image credit: Mika McKinnon
“Before you had the ability to apply radar altimetry, you were dealing with just the temperature of the top surface of the water,” NWS Director Kevin Cooley briefed me. But hurricanes don’t stick to just the top surface, instead churning the entire water column and incorporating that heat, too. That little extra bit of data makes a big difference. Coolie continued, “The Jason missions have provided about a 20% improvement in forecast data for hurricane intensity over three days.” This is especially important in a world where hurricanes grow stronger and more quickly than we’ve ever seen before.
As far as the large scale implications of the Jason-3 data, NASA project scientist Josh Willis maintains NASA’s no-nonsense approach to the political hot-button of climate change. “As human-caused global warming drives sea levels higher and higher, we are literally reshaping the surface of our planet,” he said in a press release. “These missions tell us how much and how fast.” Since the start of the sea height monitoring, researchers have seen global sea level rise of 2.8 inches (70 millimeters).
Even less sexy than long-duration climate records is data continuity, but that’s key for the Jason mission. Despite being beyond its design lifespan, Jason-2 clung on long enough to still be operational as Jason-3 launches.
In an email, NASA Communications Director Steve Cole explained that Jason-3 was injected into an orbit about 15 miles (25 kilometers) below Jason-2, and will gradually climb until they match. Cole wrote, “The two spacecraft will fly in formation, making nearly simultaneous measurements for about six months to allow scientists to precisely calibrate Jason-3’s instruments.” For the next six months, the two will share an orbit only minutes apart to collect data at as close to the same space-time coordinates as possible to cross-calibrate the satellites. When science operations begin, Jason-3 will stay in this same orbit while Jason-2 peels off. The older satellite will move to an interleaving orbit, operating in a support role to boost data resolution.
So many people, yet even more cameras. Image credit: Mika McKinnon
It wasn’t all press, public affairs, an scientists at the pad. As temporary visitors on a military base, we had our camouflaged escort/drivers. Many were in the media corps, and would be covering the launch themselves the next day. When chatting with a chat with staff sergeant Ross Whitley, he explained the best part of working in as an Air Force broadcast journalist was the diversity of experience he got. Instead of just focusing on one aspect like lighting or post-production, he does it all. “One thing I love is that I get a wide breadth of experience,” Whitley told me. “I’m a one-man show. I do everything from start to finish.”
After time for a few quick rocket-selfies, time was up and we were herded back into our vans. The newest, least experienced airman had brought up the tail of the convey on the way out, leading to a awkward pause on the way home as he was suddenly the first one out and uncertain of his destination.
NASA set up trucks above and below the launch pad with their fancy camera rigs. Image credit: Mika McKinnon
Once on the road, all the cameras came back out as photographers snapped wildly out the windows trying to catch last clean shots between hills and telephone wires. Veteran photographers lamented the limited setup locations. Their rookie kin tried to calm nerves they’d made a mistake.
Beautiful, but unlikely to reveal a rocket any time soon. Image credit: Mika McKinnon
Unburdened by a remote setup to fret over, I headed to the public beaches to try to catch a distant glimpse of the pad. California’s notorious coastal fog quickly set in, shrouding the launch site in aesthetically-pleasing but functionally-irritating wisps.
Disgruntled, I found seabirds instead.
Rockets may hide, but seagulls are forever. Image credit: Mika McKinnon
The next day dawned brightly, but my drive back to base kept dipping into ominous pockets of valley fog. My fears were confirmed once reaching Vandenberg’s main base — even trees were hiding in the mists.
The media swarm had expanded from the day before, grown to include straight reporters and even more photographers. Yet a few familiar faces were missing, betting on the foul weather to obscure the launch so choosing to stay on reliable internet and report from the webcast instead. Those of us braving the fog passed the time swapping stories of launches past, comparing gear, and speculating on the odds of the fog clearing.
So… the rocket is over there? Image credit: Mika McKinnon
Lawson was on-hand once again to corral unruly reporters, checking IDs and distributing coveted base passes from Space Command. She hustled us onto our bus, a repurposed school bus painted white. Photographers filed in, seizing window seats to render the bus half-full with every aisle seat free. Once again, we bounced along base roads, but this time in flatter, more open grasslands.
Rumbling to a stop, involuntary laughter broke out as we quickly realized the only way to even find the rocket was to take it on faith that NASA’s cameras were pointed in the appropriate direction. Even more amusingly, the location portable was labeled “Kennedy Space Center – Expendable Launch Vehicles.” Our SpaceX representative quickly objected, quipping, “Hey, they’re reusable!”
I’m more than slightly skeptical considering we’re at Vandenberg Air Force Base for the launch of a theoretically-reusable Falcon 9 rocket. Image credit: Kevin Lachance
We surged out anyway, photographers setting up tripods parallel to NASA’s rig set to track the rocket if the fog cleared. Reporters paced around, darting in front of the group to snap picks of the ridiculousness, or collect selfies with either the misplaced trailer or the absentee rocket. Looking for a white rocket in a fog bank might not be particularly effective, but it is fun.
Surprisingly, the media area not only lacked a wifi hotspot or a livestream broadcast, it didn’t even have a loudspeaker relaying the mission countdown audio. Instead, we called into dedicated numbers for NASA or SpaceX to hear the pre-launch chatter. Yet once again, our lack of service caused nightmares of dropped calls, stolen signals if reporters with the same carrier drifted too near each other, and busy signals when calling back in.
A few people had that elusive single bar, enough for brief Twitter updates if nothing else. I managed to log onto our content management system, and even get the editor open, but kept timing up when saving updates. Soon, I couldn’t get online at all and had to trust in my colleagues to pick up coverage.
For the next hour, we paced around restlessly, alternating between peering into the mist and searching for that elusive single bar of cellular service. Without a local relay of the launch countdown and no visual confirmation, we were blind. Without connectivity, we were unable to report out anyway.
Liquid nitrogen is the coolest thing in the press area. Image credit: Mika McKinnon
Seeing only my imagination reflected back in the mists, I turned my attentions to a media crew with a full computer setup for their infrared cameras. Minutes before launch they filled up with liquid nitrogen to cool the sensors in order to better detect the launch through the fog. One of the cameramen walked out in front to test detection, the screen echoing his motions with a hot human silhouette waving his arms in false colour.
Only the infrared camera setup had a hope of catching the launch through the fog. Image credit: Mika McKinnon
The press representative from Jet Propulsion Laboratories circulated, handing out stiff tagboard flyers outlining the timeline counting down to launch, and up to the events afterwards.
Our SpaceX representative emerged with a box filled with swag bags, swarmed as we descended on him like a folk of vultures. Peering into his silver plastic bags emblazoned with the SpaceX logo, the reporter next to me pulled out and inspected in turn a black SpaceX ballcap, a reporter’s notebook baring the company logo, and a sticker. Later on the bus home, he’d give us each a mission patch.
Waitin’ around, hoping for the fog to lift. Image credit: Mika McKinnon
Unlike most launch companies, SpaceX uses autonomous countdown sequences that proceed in real-time without prescheduled holds. NASA’s News Chief Michael Curie told me in an email, “SpaceX performs its countdown sequentially and begins key activities with buffer time to enable them to reach T-0 without any holds.” That means clock-time (t) and real time (l) match.
At thirteen minutes out, SpaceX entered the final countdown. Without any audio, I missed the rapid-fire final checks and cascade of excited “Go!”s building anticipation for a rapidly-approaching blastoff that I love so dearly.
I plopped down to sit before the row of tripods, and tried to accept I’d be attending a launch solely for the growling roar of the rocket.
So many reporters with nothing to see. Image credit: Mika McKinnon
Taking pity on us, our Air Force escort Lawson cranked her radio so we could hear the final countdown. She cued us with a loud “SEVEN!” and like excited schoolchildren, we gleefully joined to count down together. Through her radio, we heard reports of successful engine ignition and stared intently into the mist, desperate to see any glimmer of glow.
Time stretched out to a condensed infinity — more successes from the radio, and not a trace of the rocket right in front of us. Finally, the roar arrived, the speed of sound disconcertingly lagging light but undeniable in its force. I fought against closing my eyes and sinking into it, still hopeful for a miraculous break in the clouds. Painful seconds later, the Falcon 9 rose broke free of the cloud deck, finally visible as a streak of light rapidly dashing off into the distance.
Around me, media howled in glee, relief and joy exploding in mixed laughter and exclamations as they swung cameras around to track the blip. Then just as quickly it was gone, the rocket’s roar fading as it disappeared into the sky above us.
We turned again to the handheld radio, an intense circle focused on disembodied voices reporting maximum thrust, transonic speeds, stage separation, jettisoned fairings. The several-minute coast of both stages hit right as the infrared camera teams started cleaning up their gear, and I ducked over to marvel at the tiny storm of discarded liquid nitrogen dancing in grass.
My bright teal nails caught the eye of another photographer. I obliged his vision, pausing with the mission timeline in my hands so he could grab the shot. I made it back to the circle just in time for the first stage engine to make its landing attempt. At the most critical of critical junctures during the stage one landing attempt, the SpaceX feed glitched, going offline. We wrote it off as our terrible, intermittent connectivity, and hustled to board the buses and get back in stronger coverage areas.
Later, I’d learn between the distance and weather, SpaceX had simply lost signal with their remote camera setup on the droneship. Their camera froze, leaving media, the general public, and even remote SpaceX staff clueless about the fate of the Falcon 9 rocket. Slowly the rest of the story came out. The rocket landed hard, but upright. A lockout failed to latch, possibly coated in ice from the omnipresent thick, cold fog, the leg strut collapsing and toppling the rocket. The rocket was toast, but didn’t explode as badly as last crash and left behind substantially larger pieces than usual to tow home.
As soon as we got off base, I retreated to a local coffee shop to soak up the ambiance. Outside, a visitor interviewed his friend in an “Occupy Mars” T-shirt from behind a tiny videocamera. Inside, SpaceX sweatshirts and ballcaps were near-ubiquitous. The table beside me hosted a quartet of photographers lamenting their lack of a good shot this morning. Behind, a grizzled old man didn’t even try to hide his enthusiasm for the technological marvels of a vertical landing. The baristas offered a near-constant string of apologies for running out of bagels, breakfast burritos, orange juice, bananas, their stock heavily depleted by the temporary launch-induced population boom.
My phone pinged with a friend reporting on his experience in the public bleachers. “Sounded great!” he exclaimed, a veteran of too many launches to be disappointed. “It was fogged out,” another friend reported from her spot 4 miles out from the pad. “The sound was incredible!”
That was a rocket we saw, right? Image credit: Mika McKinnon
As a reporter, this was an awful launch to cover for reasons beyond our control. Site access was heavily limited, and weather the day-of made it impossible to make first-hand observations. Limited connectivity cut me off from the office, and thwarted my every attempt at updates. It was frustration writ large, exclusives missed and answers left unposted.
But as a scientist, this launch was everything it needed to be. The satellite arrived in the right orbit and in good health, powering on and ready to start running through instrument checks. And the rocket reached the barge, even touching down. It failed, but it failed in a new, different way than previous failures, giving SpaceX a new challenge to overcome. Even the post-topple explosions was smaller, leaving them bigger pieces to mull over.
And as a tiny, frail human faced with the power of a rocket, it was, as always, incredible.
Here’s a toast: to space, to data continuity, and to observing more so we can better understand this wild, complex world of ours.