Here’s The Behind-The-Scenes Story Of SpaceX’s Rocket Launch And Landing Attempt

Here’s The Behind-The-Scenes Story Of SpaceX’s Rocket Launch And Landing Attempt
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What was happening out-of-sight during yesterday’s SpaceX launch of Jason-3? These are the stories from reporting live on a white rocket engulfed in a fog bank, but without the internet connectivity to actually update in real-time. I was at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California this weekend to cover the Jason-3 launch. Here’s what I experienced.

At least it’s a very pretty rocket? Image credit: Mika McKinnon

On Saturday, a pack of photographers were escorted to the pad to set up remote cameras. Our convoy of vans bounced through Vandenberg’s vegetated dunes to 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.

We were confined to a headland bounded by fragile endangered species, and more threateningly, by rattlesnakes and unexploded ordnance. Photographers did their best to guess the next day’s weather and launch timing while fiddling with camera settings, pointing them in the right direction, and trying not to attract gremlins that would mess with their gear.

This was as close as we got — more than 800m away, any chance of ogling the Falcon 9’s landing legs utterly dashed.

Falcon 9 upright on the launch pad. Image credit: SpaceX

NASA and NOAA representatives provided an impromptu science briefing on the hillside, talking about the mission while keeping their precious payload in sight.

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. But it’s critically important to providing data for daily marine operations, improving forecasting models and tracking long-term change.

Kevin Cooley of the National Weather Service answered our questions while admiring the view. Image credit: Mika McKinnon

US National Weather Service Director Kevin Cooley placed Jason-3’s data in the context of disaster mitigation. “Before you had the ability to apply radar altimetry, you were dealing with just the temperature of the top surface of the water,” Cooley told Gizmodo. But hurricanes don’t stick to just the top surface. Instead, they churn the entire water column, incorporating heat, too. That little extra bit of data makes a big difference. He 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 for the value of consistent long-duration records, NASA project scientist Josh Willis maintains the space agency’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 70mm, and expect it to continue under the watchful radar of Jason-3.

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 launched. 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 in order 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.

Fog is only a cool aesthetic effect if it burns off before launch. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

On the trip back out of base, every camera was out as photographers tried to catch their last clean shots between hills and telephone wires. Veteran photographers lamented the limited setup locations. Their rookie kin tried to calm nerves that they’d made a mistake. 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 pad in aesthetically-pleasing but functionally-irritating wisps.

Launch day dawned brightly, but my drive to base kept dipping into ominous pockets of valley fog. The base was completely swathed; even trees were hiding in the mists. We filed onto a repurposed school bus painted white, photographers gravitating to every window seat. Once again, we bounced along base roads, but this time in flatter, more open grasslands.

As the bus rumbled to a stop, involuntary laughter broke out as we quickly realised 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 labelled “Kennedy Space Center – Expendable Launch Vehicles”. Our SpaceX representative quickly objected, quipping, “Hey, they’re reusable!”

So… the rocket is over there? Image credit: Mika McKinnon

For the next hour, we paced around restlessly, alternating between peering into the mist and searching for that elusive single bar of mobile 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.

At thirteen minutes out, SpaceX entered the final countdown. At four minutes before liftoff, the final checks started. Without any audio, I missed the rapid-fire final checks and cascade of excited “Go’s!” building anticipation for the approaching blastoff that I love so dearly.

I plopped down to sit before the row of tripods, and tried to accept the fact that I was attending a launch solely for the growling roar of the rocket.

Only the infrared camera setup had a hope of catching the launch through the fog. Image credit: Mika McKinnon

Taking pity on us, our Air Force escort cranked her radio so we could hear the final countdown. She cued us with a loud “SEVEN!” and like excited schoolchildren, we gleefully joined in 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 and broke free of the cloud deck, finally visible as a streak of light dashing off into the distance.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying Jason-3 into orbit on January 17, 2016. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

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. 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.

And then what?! Image credit: SpaceX

Later, I’d learn that between the distance and weather, SpaceX had simply lost signal with its remote camera setup on the droneship. Its 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.

Remains of the Falcon 9 rocket on the droneship. Image credit: SpaceX

As soon as we got off base, I retreated to a local coffee shop to soak up the ambiance. Inside, SpaceX sweatshirts and ballcaps were 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 and 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 6km out from the pad. “The sound was incredible!”

Falcon 9 blazed into our lives, then just as quickly disappeared. 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 explosion was smaller, leaving SpaceX bigger pieces to mull over.

And as a tiny, frail human faced with the power of a rocket, it was, as always, incredible.

Top image: Falcon 9 blasting off with Jason-3 aboard on 17 January 2016. Credit: SpaceX

This is an abridged version of a launch report that was originally filed on GeoMika.