Vandenberg Space Launch
Now, let’s be clear, this is a weblog of developmental cognitive neuroscience. Still, those who know me understand that I began my undergraduate career in the aerospace engineering department. I have loved space flight since before I could ride a bicycle. I made a scrapbook when I was six years old that held every news clipping about the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy – I still have it. Even now I love reading books on the Apollo moon landing program and Werner von Braun’s role in the early space program. Call it a hobby – it has always been a source of obsession. Still, in all my years I have never witnessed a live space launch.
Reason #318 why Santa Barbara is such an awesome place to live is the fact that we are 90 minutes away from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Vandenberg is a major spaceport in the United States for commercial and military space operations. They don’t always post their launch schedule, but enthusiasts from around the world pool their collective knowledge to assemble a rough idea of when rockets will be blasting off. In my case I had luck on my side, as a local television station was covering the countdown of a target launch vehicle from Vandenberg last Tuesday. I hopped up off the couch and got in the car.
The mission was related to the NFIRE (Near Field InfraRed Experiment) satellite, which was designed to gather data on the orbital observation of rocket exhaust plumes. To calibrate the sensors on the satellite they needed a, well, rocket exhaust plume. The target launch vehicle was a modified Minotaur ballistic missile, which was meant to simulate a ballistic missile launch for the NFIRE satellite.
My wife and I headed up into the hills of Santa Barbara to see if we could witness the launch. Online Vandenberg observation FAQs indicated that it should definitely be visible. There was a two hour launch window that corresponded to two overhead passes of the NFIRE satellite (see above picture). We barely made it in time – as the satellite made its first pass, but we saw nothing but a few shooting stars. By looking at the orbital data for the NFIRE sat online (yea iPhone!) I knew the next satellite pass would begin at 11:57pm. Sure enough, at 11:58 we saw a bright orange light coming up from the horizon and blazing up into the night. Compared to your Fourth of July fireworks it wasn’t very special, but the knowledge that it was leaving the Earth’s atmosphere was about the coolest thing I have seen in a while.
Cheers to spaceflight everybody.