Spaceflight Insider

Reflections on the launch of OA-5: Waiting

Chincoteague Island photo credit Mark Usciak SpaceFlight Insider

The marshes of Chincoteague Island. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / SpaceFlight Insider

CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. — The sleepy seaside village of Chincoteague has a population of about 3,000 and is generally a quiet, restful place best known for the wild ponies who reside in the wetlands surrounding NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. The island’s peaceful nature has been interrupted over the course of the past three years with some fairly dramatic activity.

A plane comes in for a landing at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / SpaceFlight Insider

A C-2 Greyhound comes in for a landing at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / SpaceFlight Insider

Located deep in coastal wetlands and marshes, the region is perhaps best known for the annual Oyster Festival (which occurred at the same time as the launch) than it is for space exploration. More so, perhaps, than the launches which are beginning to take place from the historic site.

Orbital ATK changed the nature of the type of launch vehicles from Wallops when it announced in 2008 that the Taurus II rocket, later renamed Antares, would take to the skies from Pad-0A.

The region is similar, in some aspects, to other launch sites. The Wallops site is located in a remote wetland. Therefore, if and when complex technological marvels go “off script”, the risk to life is lessened.

Such was the case in 2014 when the Orb-3 Antares encountered a problem with one of its two AJ26 engines (formerly known as the NK-33), which resulted in the complete loss of the vehicle and its payload.

Orbital ATK was already in the process of moving away from the AJ26/NK33 and toward the RD-181 when the accident occurred. This was a good thing as these new engines made the events that took place on Oct. 17 possible – and impressive.

SpaceFlight Insider is fortunate to not be based in any one ‘house’. What this means is that we’re not focused on just our articles or our imagery (still and video) or our live webcasts. This diversity allowed us to switch footing from producing articles to conducting a video interview and photographic work.

Chasing rockets is not all flight profiles and hypergolics…


Although I didn’t avail myself of the Oyster Festival, I did get to experience a bit of the “wildlife” while I was at Chincoteague. The guests in the room next to mine at the hotel that I was staying at had a dog; it busied itself by barking constantly. This apparently irritated the couple who proceeded to have a rather lengthy argument which prompted the hotel manager to pay them a visit.

I’d thought that the worse was behind me. Oh, how wrong I was. One tends to forget that after an argument, couples tend to make up. Also the fact that the walls of hotels tend to be newspaper thin didn’t help.

As NASA worked to prepare the radar tracking station in Bermuda for Hurricane Nicole’s pass, Orbital ATK, the space agency, and those of us in the media waited to see if all of the preparation would be undone by the fury of Mother Nature. The main concerns were that either the station or the road leading to it could be washed away.

One of the key landmarks that let you know you are near Wallops Flight Facility - are the radar dishes that dot the Virginia countryside in the region. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / SpaceFlight Insider

One of the key landmarks that let you know you are near Wallops Flight Facility are the radar dishes that dot the Virginia countryside in the region. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / SpaceFlight Insider

As it turned out, Antares would not be denied. For myself, however, I had grown weary. The delays weighed on me as I worked to maintain SFI’s normal flow of content, adjust the logistics of both myself and my team, and handle personal issues.

If the flight pushed back much further, I’d be forced to pull up stakes and return home. We were running perilously close to exceeding our limited budget for this launch.

When a cable, part of Pad 0A’s Ground Support Equipment, encountered an issue forcing the flight to take place no-earlier-than Monday, Oct. 17, that, essentially, was that. If the launch slipped any further, we’d have to leave.

The night of the 17th came. We made our way to the Northrop Grumman parking lot, as instructed, and were transported to the press viewing site.

As the Moon rose, a flock of geese arced their way overhead. The mosquitoes, almost the same size as the geese, began a coordinated series of attacks as I worked with NASA to gain internet access and power.

With the T–0 pushed back to the very close of the five-minute window, I began to worry that this would conclude our ability to cover the launch. It turns out, I needn’t have worried. At 7:45 p.m. EDT, the Antares 230 flew into the skies – Orbital ATK had successfully returned the re-engined rocket to service.

Still, the delays and issues had taken their toll. I was ready to go home. The lingering issue of being too absorbed with only what was right in front of me had returned and I hadn’t even noticed it.

When one works in the media, you tend to get used to hearing pre-packaged elements. Then something comes along that leaves even the most flat-footed correspondent speechless. Usually? NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is known for this. In the case of OA-5, he didn’t disappoint. The four-time space shuttle astronaut left no doubt how much he appreciated Orbital ATK’s efforts.

Stating that he could, essentially, “go to my grave happy that I knew Dave Thompson” (Orbital ATK’s CEO and President), Bolden reiterated the positive feelings that permeated the surrounding fog.

Feeling quite drained, I returned to the hotel to begin work on our post-launch article. The members of our visual team went out to collect the still and video stations and return them to me. Getting everything ready to return to our home base in Florida added an extra layer of stress and had me, once again, feeling run down. The flight of OA-5 had become quite the roller-coaster.

The road to Wallops Flight Facility at dawn. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / SpaceFlight Insider

The road to Wallops Flight Facility at dawn. Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / SpaceFlight Insider

 

The views expressed in this feature are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of SpaceFlight Insider. 

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Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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